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'Hamlet' ohne Damrau

available at Amazon
A. Thomas, Hamlet, S. Keenlyside, N. Dessay, Gran Teatre del Liceu, B. de Billy

(released on October 5, 2004)
EMI 5 99447 9 | 2h56
Actors insist that Macbeth is a cursed play, and opera singers are afraid of La forza del destino, but something appears to be rotten in the state of Denmark as far as Washington National Opera's first-ever staging of Ambroise Thomas's Hamlet. The last opera of the beleaguered company's season held the promise of being its most interesting production. Then baritone Carlos Álvarez withdrew from the title role, to be replaced by a combination of Michael Chioldi and Liam Bonner. As heard two summers ago at Wolf Trap, Bonner has more than enough voice for the big time and the right look and stage presence for the role, while Chioldi has crossed our radar only once and that quite briefly, if vividly, in the 2004 WNO production of Andrea Chénier. The solid and broad-voiced Elizabeth Bishop holds great promise as Gertrude, and wily veteran Samuel Ramey will have the necessary gravity (and eye-holding stage presence) as Claudius.

An untested Hamlet was easier to accept since, as previewed this winter, coloratura soprano Diana Damrau was going to make her company and role debut as Ophélie. Well, La Damrau became pregnant -- many congratulations to her! -- and has been instructed by physicians not to travel or overextend herself. So, we have Elizabeth Futral as Ophélie instead: most of the qualities she will need for the role she showed a-plenty in her most recent outing here, as Violetta, and the things she did not have are not as important for Ophélie. The casting loses that extra spark of a striking debut, but the changes are far from disastrous. Even the Metropolitan Opera, which for its first Hamlet in over a century brought the Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser production to New York -- as previewed by Matthew Gurewitsch, Honored in the Breach: Shakespeare through the Prism of French Grand Opera (Opera News, March 2010) -- had its own troubles: Natalie Dessay had to cancel, to be replaced, just in the nick of time, by German soprano Marlis Petersen.

If you are looking for a way to preview the opera before the WNO production, the DVD of the Caurier-Leiser production, recorded at Barcelona's Gran Teatre del Liceu, is an excellent option -- it also happens to be the only show in town on DVD. There are a couple of fine recordings on CD, both now widely unavailable but that can be purchased through ArkivMusic: Hampson / Anderson (at 3h18, the most complete recording) and Milnes / Sutherland. The DVD offers a fairly unbeatable combination of leading singers, both lauded for their interpretations, at a much lower price. The supporting cast is neither exemplary nor truly disappointing, with Béatrice Uria-Monzon (Gertrude) and Alain Vernhes (Claudius) suited quite well to their roles, and Russian tenor Daniil Shtoda, who has received critical praise but has always struck my ears as too nasal and shouty, making an unremarkable Laërte. Markus Hollop seems cast for the ghost as much for his towering stature as for his voice, which is full but a little covered. Pasted with glowing makeup and lit with blue light, he is a menacing ghost.

WNO will present a production by Thaddeus Strassberger, premiered by Lyric Opera of Kansas City four years ago. It not only uses Thomas's alternate ending, made for Covent Garden, with Hamlet dying along with everyone else at the end of the fifth act, it updates the action to "an unnamed 1950s totalitarian regime." This provides a fairly convincing modern setting for the intrigues of the Danish court and the paranoia of both Hamlet and Claudius regarding the maintenance of power. Strassberger's sets evoke the grand, soulless architecture of fascist Italy, faded in the post-war years and covered with graffiti. I led a group of high school students, on an annual field trip, to the dress rehearsal on Monday night, and none of them questioned the updating as ridiculous (teenage boys have a finely tuned sensitivity to chicanery, intellectual or otherwise). Without printing any spoilers, I can also relate that the staging of the mad scene was a class-wide favorite.

Washington National Opera will present Hamlet from May 19 to June 4, in the Kennedy Center Opera House.

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