WILMINGTON - Poisoned goblets. A skull. And swords. Such iconic objects - all carefully laid out in the corner of the rehearsal room - can only add up to Hamlet.
"We're ready!" said Brendan Cooke, general director of OperaDelaware.
But not for the play. It's an operatic version, by a composer whose name is unknown even to opera mavens.
Amleto (as it is known in Italian) by Franco Faccio (1840-91) had a disastrous 1871 La Scala premiere, when the star tenor had neither a voice nor an understudy. The composer never again allowed the opera to be performed and went on to have a conducting career, leaving Hamlet only marginally retrievable on microfilm. Nonetheless, it lives - as part of a May 14-22 festival of Shakespeare-based opera, collectively called the 2016 OperaDelaware Festival at the Grand Opera House.
"It's gorgeous. Just gorgeous," said mezzo-soprano Lara Tillotson, who plays Hamlet's mother. "It's maybe not one of those operas that's going to be done everywhere and all the time but should be in the rotation of any house that has the voices to cast it. And if you can cast Rigoletto, you can cast this."
Operagoers have heard rediscovery claims before, and a degree of skepticism is inevitable. OperaDelaware (hedging its bets?) is presenting this Hamlet in repertoire with Verdi's sure-fire comedy Falstaff - all thanks to a $450,000 grant from the Longwood Foundation, the largest in the company's 70-year history.
Good operas certainly can be unfairly buried, and so can masterpieces. An example of the former is Debussy's early Rodrigue et Chimène, a youthful work that deserves an occasional hearing. As for the latter, there's Berlioz's Les Troyens, now an established masterpiece all but unheard until the 1960s.
And, to be sure, Shakespeare has too often been trivialized in operatic adaptations. A particularly nightmarish notoriety attaches to Ambroise Thomas' French Hamlet, which is said to have an alternative ending . . . with Hamlet and Ophelia getting married while the ghost rejoices.
"That makes me die inside a little," said Tillotson. "That's the wrongest thing ever."
It's a smart cast. And the singers and the creative team alike say this operatic Hamlet needs no apologies. They also say it is like an excerpted version of the play - no mention, for example, of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. "It's not a broken, jagged thing that I, as a director, have to figure out how to put it back together," said director Loren Meeker. "But the responsibility is on all of us to create this thing for the first time."
Initially seeming identical to Verdi, Faccio's music has its own rules that are gradually revealing themselves. Tenor Joshua Kohl auditioned by learning the opera's "To be or not to be" monologue, and, in 19th-century Italian style, threw in a high C at the end. But that effect had to go: At length, Kohl decided to honor the apt harmonic ambiguity with which Faccio actually ended the scene. Hamlet, after all, is the guy who can't make up his mind.
"He's a prince and philosopher. He lives for that struggle. That's who he is," Kohl said. "The monologue is intimidating, not for how famous it is but how profound it is. It's about humanity's struggle with life and death." The music also has room for contemplative pauses; Kohl loves that.
The librettist was young Arrigo Boito (1842-1918), known as one of the great librettists in opera history for his later collaborations with Verdi on Otello and Falstaff. The opening scene of Hamlet would seem to be stolen from Rigoletto, starting not with the ghost visiting the ramparts, but the celebration after the coronation of his murderer, Claudius. But it's not really a theft: Boito simply has conflated three scenes from Shakespeare's play.
The largest orchestra the company has employed in recent years will be in the pit - and needed. Though Faccio was writing in what now seems the Italian opera lingua franca of that time, he was also part of a cultural reform movement known as the Scapigliatura and had studied Wagner - years before Verdi did. So places where Faccio seems to be echoing Verdi's later style aren't echoes at all. Faccio, who traveled widely during his military service, got there first.
"You have a composer who was trying to do something new," said Chicago conductor Anthony Barrese, who is largely responsible for the Amleto resurrection. "Faccio was trying to bring a symphonic element to the opera. Every scene begins with quite an extended orchestral prelude. They're like little tone poems that tell you what's going on."
Now 41, Barrese began hunting down the piece in 2001, intrigued by Boito's pre-Verdi collaboration. He first saw the full score in a microfilm supplied to him by the Ricordi publishing house in Milan. The microfilm was in bad shape, so full of cross-outs, coffee stains, and scratches (on the film, not the score) that some pages required days to decipher. Later, Barrese leafed through the real thing in Milan - amid Italian summer heat and wearing latex gloves.
He discovered there were two distinct Hamlets, one that premiered in Genoa in 1865, and the 1871 Milan version, which had many key scenes recomposed, though the final sword fight scene was oddly dropped. Barrese reinstated it because, in grand operatic fashion, most characters die in a few minutes.
Or less. What continues to astound Barrese is how the opera's musical compactness aids narrative swiftness. Many virtues were on display in the 2015 Baltimore Concert Opera presentation Barrese conducted, but only in the Opera Southwest staging in 2014 in Albuquerque, N.M., also conducted by Barrese, were the opera's strengths fully apparent. Cooke jumped at it for OperaDelaware's first foray into a festival format. Operagoers may not travel to Wilmington for another Falstaff, but a new Hamlet?
The discovery saga continues in July at the Bregenz Festival in Austria, when a wholly different team mounts the piece. OperaDelaware opted to recast the piece completely rather than use the Opera Southwest cast, to share the discovery among more and more singers in the world. In theory, that should avoid the opera's fate in Milan, when the only tenor who knew the title role was forced to sing it despite being in a vocally compromised state. "Now, if somebody gets sick," says Barrese, "we have someone else who can do the piece."
"Hamlet" is performed May 14, 20, and 22 in repertory with "Falstaff" (May 15 and 21), both at the Grand Opera House, 818 N. Market St., Wilmington. Tickets: $29-$95. Information: 302-442-7807 or www.operade.org.