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Washington National Opera: Hamlet behind the Iron Curtain

Michael Chioldi (Hamlet) and Elizabeth Futral (Ophélie) in Hamlet, Washington National Opera (photo by Karin Cooper)

More production photos
The Washington National Opera opened a strong production of Hamlet, by Ambroise Thomas (1811-1896), at the Kennedy Center Wednesday evening, in an updated version by stage director Thaddeus Strassberger originally premiered by the Lyric Opera of Kansas City. Until this year, this French grand opera had not been heard in over one hundred years at the Metropolitan Opera, and it is receiving its WNO premiere starkly set in the 1950s, in a Fascist dictatorship or behind the Iron Curtain, yet curiously in a country with a monarchy.

Hamlet has the potential to reach similar psychotic depths as Strauss’s Salome or Britten’s Rape of Lucretia; however, the libretto (.PDF file), by Michel Carré and Jules Barbier, reshapes Shakespeare’s work by focusing on the relationship (engagement ring and all) between Prince Hamlet and Ophélie. Indeed, the main point of the story was turned from Hamlet’s tragic introspective tribulations to that of Ophélie’s mad scene and suicide caused by love lost, a predictable course for a Romantic opera. “To be or not to be, that is the question,” inevitably becomes about Ophélie’s will to live, thus weakening the political suspense of who would rule Denmark and whether Hamlet would fulfill the ghost of his father’s command to kill Claudius. Hamlet was often seemingly perplexed and remorseful rather than crazy, angry, or violent, except for at one point when he almost knocked off his mother.

Conductor Patrick Fournillier energetically led the orchestra through Thomas’s pleasing score, which could be loosely described as a blend of Rossini and Franck. However, the orchestra and venerable bass Samuel Ramey (Claudius) did seem to ignore some of the excesses of Fournillier’s enthusiasm, particularly his attempts at velocity. At one point Ramey held back Fournillier and the entire orchestra by sheer vocal force. The orchestra, stuck in the middle, chose wisely to follow a singer with such experience and reputation. Ramey, with a rather rusty sound and vibrato slowly oscillating like a basketball, warmed up through the evening, becoming more and more convincing until his death by pistol.

Soprano Elizabeth Futral stepped in with short notice for an expecting Diana Damrau as Ophélie. Futral had everything needed for her role except for a dry approach to bel canto singing, where each note was given equal importance instead of creating dazzling shapes and flourishes. Additionally, Futral's highest notes seemed to go wide and lose beauty and agility. In fairness, the “mad scene,” where the music changes meter and affect every few moments along with Ophélie’s lost thoughts and in which Futral carries all of Act IV, was much more polished than her work in previous acts. The audience was completely transported when she was singing her last phrases with harp, alone, suspended high above the stage after having dived backwards into a lake, even if her sound was not fully present.

Other Articles:

Anne Midgette, In 'Hamlet', only the theatrics are grand (Washington Post, May 21)

Tim Smith, Washington National Opera's "Hamlet" packs musical, theatrical power (Baltimore Sun, May 21)

---, Opera version of 'Hamlet' gets rare D.C. staging (Baltimore Sun, May 15)

Emily Cary, Washington National Opera presents unique take on 'Hamlet' (Washington Examiner, May 18)
Baritone Michael Chioldi, who earlier had stepped in to replace Carlos Álvarez as Hamlet, had his best dramatic moments in scenes with his conniving, Nordic-blond mother Gertrude (mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Bishop). After Hamlet’s intelligence catches his mother in a falsehood, Hamlet physically forces her to face her dead husband, lying in state in a mausoleum, grippingly singing, “I am no longer your son, but your judge, guilty Queen!” Hamlet then breaks the bust of Claudius (almost hitting his mother) on the same base that a statue of the dead King had stood before being pulled down with ropes strewn by coup supporters at the beginning of the opera. Bishop, with equally impressive high and low register, swiftly swirled bel canto phrases to reveal the haunted, fearful guilt with which she was possessed. Even so, the ghost of the dead king (bass John Marcus Bindel), then visible only to Hamlet, instructed him to spare his mother.

The chorus beautifully reinforced scenes without drawing undue attention away from the main characters, while John Tessier's bright tenor instrument was captivating as Laërte. Even if this production is a departure from the original Hamlet, could easily be named Ophélie, and is confusingly trying to have-its-cake-and-eat-it-too in terms of historical placement, it is definitely worth experiencing.

Washington National Opera's production of Hamlet continues through June 4. Liam Bonner will sing the title role on May 24 and June 1 and 4.


Anonymous said...

Since when is Thomas considered a bel-canto composer? And since when is singing the notes as written something to be denigrated?

Oscillating like a basketball?

How does a singer, any singer, hold back an orchestra by sheer vocal force?

Is this your first review?

Mark Barry said...

Is this your first review?


Anonymous said...

You may recall that fascist Italy was a monarchy.

Doug said...

"since when is singing the notes as written something to be denigrated?"

Since always. Since the beginning of opera.

Composers have never written everything on the page; there have always been certain elements left up to the singer. This is called "style." A singer singing Baroque music stylistically knows where to put in trills and other embellishments, even though they are not written in the music. A performer of Romantic music will put in portamenti, or rubati, or other style elements (phrasing, shape, text emphasis etc.) that are not indicated in the score. Just "singing the notes as written" is certainly something to be denigrated; singers have always and will always be expected to add appropriate stylistic elements to the music they perform, or else be accused (rightfully) of poor musicianship.