The Washington National Opera debuted its first-ever production of Ambroise Thomas’ Hamlet this past week at the Kennedy Center Opera House. Running through June 4th, this fitfully intriguing version of the opera boasts some things to love, some things to dislike, and perhaps the most over-the-top “mad scene” in the history of opera.
The production boasts a decent cast, considering that two of the key principals suddenly dropped out earlier this year. The current cast includes baritones Michael Chioldi and Liam Bonner sharing duties as Hamlet, soprano Elizabeth Futral as Ophélie (the French spelling of Ophelia), veteran bass-baritone Samuel Ramey as Claudius, and mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Bishop as Gertrude. Plácido Domingo and Patrick Fournillier share podium duties. Mr. Domingo was supposed to handle conducting chores exclusively, but he’s still recovering from minor—and fortunately successful—colon cancer surgery and apparently decided to trim his appearances back a bit.
Most operagoers, this reviewer included, have never seen a full production of Thomas’ Hamlet, so it’s close to impossible to establish comparisons. Quite popular in the nineteenth century, the opera faded from the repertoire in the twentieth before experiencing a kind of revival that began in the 1980s, spurred on by companies searching for something new and different. In Hamlet, they discovered an interesting anomaly, a lush, Romantic opera that, if not exactly La Traviata or La Bohème, had a good story and some very nice music going for it.
But dramatically troubling, particularly in the Anglosphere, was Hamlet’s (the opera’s) ending. As Shakespeare fans are well aware, Hamlet, and pretty much everyone in the first-tier cast, ends up as a lifeless corpse as the curtain goes down on the final act. The French found all this revenge-tragedy murderousness a bit much. So in adapting Hamlet to French sensibilities, Alexandre Dumas père trimmed some characters (like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern), allowed Gertrude to survive, and had Hamlet crowned King of Denmark in the finale. It’s this version that Thomas used as the basis for his opera.
And it worked just fine in France and elsewhere for that matter. But this French-fried musical Hamlet didn’t go over well in London at all. To address the issue, Thomas eventually wrote another ending, restoring Hamlet to his rightful demise, although that version was apparently never performed in the composer’s lifetime. More recent revivals of the opera have relied on some version of what’s currently called the “Covent Garden” ending to restore order to the dramatic universe. And so it is in WNO’s current production. Hamlet is once again doomed as the curtain falls.
As has become semi-fashionable these days, WNO has chosen to go with a contemporary update of Hamlet, eschewing traditional costuming and sets in favor of an innovative production brought in from the Lyric Opera of Kansas City. WNO’s Hamlet now takes place in some unknown totalitarian country. The cast is in contemporary dress, and the gloomy, postmodern set (complete with gang graffiti on the walls) certainly implies that all is not well in Denmark.
As the opera opens, director Thaddeus Strassberger launches festivities with a startlingly effective scene in which the chorus, clad as the classic proletariat, streams into the theater itself from the side exits to mount a rowdy demonstration. Visually, it’s quite effective, as is the evocative toppling of a headless statue onstage. (Hard to tell if it’s Stalin or Saddam.) But it’s all a little inconsistent. The demonstrators carry red and white placards (Red or White Russians, Bolsheviks or Mensheviks?). But they and the main cast also indulge in Mussolini-style fascist salutes, so it’s tough to say who the bad guys really are.
This kind of political confusion is perhaps the director’s way of saying that all governments are inevitably oppressive and bad. Maybe that’s true. But the inconsistency of the political symbolism ultimately renders the metaphor more confusing than effective, although the opening certainly looked good. Most directors these days tend to skew left in their politics. But in DC at least, that’s guaranteed to irritate a good portion of the audience, so maybe ambiguity is the way to go when it comes to opera. It just seems fumbled here.
In any event, after Strassberger’s genuinely kinetic opening scene, the production seemed to run out of steam. The opera itself proved fairly prosaic, music-wise, and this might have been part of the problem. Thomas’ score is certainly competent, inventive, and pleasant to the ear. But it lacks the powerful impact of Verdi’s verismo period. And it also lacks truly memorable arias, the kind that Mozart, Rossini, and Bellini were able to write in their sleep.
Thomas does have a surprise for us, however. Given little to sing or do in the early going, his Ophélie takes over the stage as the opera nears its climax. She’s given a gigantic mad scene in which she sings, warbles, cries out, and dances through a pantomime of her final anguish before throwing herself in the river to drown.
But wait! There’s more!
After she leaps into the water in this production, the curtain comes down—only to rise once again in one of the most startling operatic codas we’ve seen in many seasons. The dark, post-industrial buildings of the main set have disappeared, and in their place, jagged, gossamer curtains–pulsating with shimmering bluish light like impressionistic pastel shards of stained glass–part slightly to reveal the drowning Ophélie wrapped gently in a diaphanous wave, singing a lovely valedictory as the waters of the river seem to gently enfold her in a final embrace.
Only in opera can a seemingly preposterous conceit become wondrous, but it happens here. Putting aside for a moment the empirical fact that it’s a little difficult to sing while you’re drowning, we come to understand that what we’re really seeing and hearing are the final thoughts and feelings of Ophélie as she, consciousness fading, drifts downstream toward a far better and happier world than the one she’s leaving.
Soprano Elizabeth Futral, who learned this part just last month when the scheduled soprano dropped out, was nothing short of astonishing in this two-part mad-scene-to-end-all-mad-scenes. Thomas’ music is at its most imaginative here, eschewing romantic, melodic lines for the most part in favor of a dramatically jagged approach, pitting lyrical, virtually bel canto moments that never quite develop against brief outbursts of fear, panic, and confusion, alternating yet again with dreamy reminiscences of things that never were. And from time to time, without warning, he throws in lovely but highly challenging coloratura figures that soar to the heavens before they break down once again.
This is tough stuff to sing. And it’s hard to believe that Ms. Futral not only learned this music but mastered it in just a few short weeks. We’ve heard and admired her before. But this performance, given the learning curve, could be her most astonishing effort to date—certainly her most impressive. Hers is a lyric soprano that possesses reserve power and a seemingly infinite range of expressiveness, all of which were on display during last week’s opening night performance.
Ms. Futral’s extraordinary feat was one of those moments in opera you never forget, and the audience knew it. Having responded somewhat tepidly in the early going, they first erupted into thunderous applause when Ms. Futral’s exquisite mad scene was finally concluded, and once again during the final curtain call. In both theater and musical theater, you occasionally encounter a scene or an actor who makes the entire price of admission seem worthwhile. This was one of those times.
The rest of the production was decent and the singing was generally good. On opening night, baritone Michael Chioldi gave a somewhat cold but appropriately pensive reading of the always-conflicted Hamlet. The title character is on stage and singing nearly all of the time in this taxing role, but Mr. Chioldi handled his part well, singing and acting with dignity, grace, and power.
Mezzo Elizabeth Bishop was also excellent in the role of Gertrude, a much expanded and amplified part in Thomas’ take on the Hamlet story. She’s clearly guilty of active complicity with Claudius here, and Hamlet takes her viciously to task for it, giving the role numerous, heart-wrenchingly dramatic opportunities which Ms. Bishop makes the most of, displaying considerable strength and depth as a singer, and impressive intensity as a character actress.
Most of Shakespeare’s other roles are either reduced or eliminated in Thomas’ version—not uncommon in opera where expository and minor characters material must be trimmed or cut due to problems of length and musical and dramatic focus.
One role that remains, although it’s somewhat reduced, is that of Hamlet Sr.’s evil brother, King Claudius, sung here by legendary American bass-baritone Samuel Ramey. Mr. Ramey’s been one of our favorites for years, and he’s been impressive in other WNO productions. These include his signature Satan in the company’s spectacular 1996 production of Arrigo Boito’s Mefistophele; the title roles in Mussorgsky’s Boris Godenov and Bluebeard in Béla Bartòk’s Bluebeard’s Castle; and the role of the remorseless Claggart in Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd.
But something was clearly going wrong for Mr. Ramey on opening night. Usually quite self-assured, he seemed uncomfortable onstage—beyond the discomfort you might expect as part and parcel of Claudius’ guilt. And he sounded uncomfortable, too, having apparent difficulties staying on pitch. Worst of all, his vibrato—always strong and clear in the past—was slow and laborious, a little like what we used to call “annoying wow and flutter” back in the old vinyl record/stereophonic recording days.
I’ve read speculation that Mr. Ramey—now in his sixties—might be nearing the end of the line, career-wise. It’s entirely possible that Mr. Ramey was under the weather last week, and, after all the other cast problems in this production, was trying to go on with the show to lessen the overall stress level. But this sounded somewhat more serious. I’ll leave it at that.
As for the rest of the production, the WNO orchestra, under the baton of Patrick Fournillier on opening night, sounded competent but a bit faint. The opening notes of the short overture were so faint that some in the audience continued to chat away, not yet aware that the show had begun. On the other hand, the opening chorus, in spite of being scattered throughout the main floor of the Opera House, sounded excellent and was able to stay on the beat, a very impressive effort indeed.
Ambroise Thomas’ Hamlet is an attractive novelty that’s well worth hearing at least once—with the notable exception of Elizabeth Futral’s smashing mad scene. I hope someone had or has the sense to record it (legally of course). It’s something you can watch and listen to again without ever getting over the wonder of it all.
Composer: Ambroise Thomas with libretto by Michele Carré and Jules Barbier based on the adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet by Alexandre Dumas père.
Stage Direction by Thaddeus Strassberger
Conducted by Plácido Domingo and Patrick Fournillier
Produced by Clarice Smith Opera Series and underwritten by the Robert H. Smith Family Foundation and Barbara Augusta Teichert
Reviewed by Terry Ponick
Hamlet runs through June 4, 2010.
For Details, Directions and Tickets, click here.