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Liam Bonner Shines and Broods as Melancholy Dane

Liam Bonner (Hamlet, center) and Cast in Hamlet,
Washington National Opera, 2010 (photo by Karin Cooper)
After teaching Shakespeare's Hamlet and the operatic adaptation of it by Ambroise Thomas (1811–1896) to my Humanities class, I led that group of 10th grade students on our annual field trip/pilgrimage to the Kennedy Center, to view the dress rehearsal of Washington National Opera's production. It was as usual a great success with the students, many of whom over the years have developed a long-term interest in opera -- or at least have come to realize that opera can be just entertaining theater rather than some remote, elitist intellectual exercise. (It is a particular victory that some of the most cynical students, seated behind me at the dress rehearsal, judged the staging of Ophélie's mad scene as "pretty tight.") After that exhilarating experience, two plans to review the production were scuttled by changes in my schedule, meaning that the following assessment is based on a viewing of the final performance of the run, last Friday evening.

The libretto by Michel Carré and Jules Barbier restructures the Shakespeare original so extensively that it should probably have been titled Ophélie, because it places the romance between Polonius's daughter and Hamlet at the center of the opera. Hamlet's betrayal of his vow to marry Ophélie becomes in some ways a tragedy more important than Hamlet's drive to avenge the murder of his father, and without a doubt the coloratura role of Ophélie receives the most important music, with the opera's dramatic arc peaking at her extended mad scene and suicide. Thomas's librettists based their work not on Shakespeare but on the French adaptation of the play by Alexandre Dumas and Paul Meurice, which was part of a long-term Ophelia craze in Paris, sparked by the celebrated performances of Irish actress Harriet Smithson in the role. (This was the same interpretation of Ophelia that caused Hector Berlioz to compose his Symphonie fantastique and eventually to marry Smithson.) When Thomas took Hamlet for performances in England, he made a second version of the opera that at least had Hamlet die at the end (the version performed at WNO is a mixture of the two, since the ghost does appear again to urge Hamlet on), instead of the original ending in which only Claudius dies.

Liam Bonner (Hamlet) and Elizabeth Futral (Ophélie) in Hamlet, Washington National Opera, 2010 (photo by Karin Cooper)
This was also the last of three performances with young baritone Liam Bonner replacing Michael Chioldi in the title role. Bonner cut a dashing and youthful figure as Hamlet, with more than enough vocal power to fill the Kennedy Center Opera House in those places where extreme force is needed, like the tense scenes with the ghost, the angry confrontation with Elizabeth Bishop's equally potent Gertrude at the end of Act III, and especially the dramatic conclusion to the play within a play in Act II, where the strains of the drinking song ("Le vin dissipe la tristesse") are woven manically into the powerful septet of astonished characters. At just a few moments, especially in the first half of the opera and in Être ou ne pas être at the start of Act III, Bonner produced in fact too much sound and could have benefited from more suave control of his instrument.

A Pittsburgh native who first studied at Carnegie-Mellon, Bonner has come a long way from when Anne Midgette reviewed him at the Manhattan School of Music. After his turns in some other young artist programs around the country, we had the chance to hear him last summer in a rare performance of Verdi's early comic opera Un Giorno di Regno, where he impressed with a natural stage presence and admirable comic timing. My feeling about his voice, in fact, was not that far from what Anne Midgette heard of him in 2004: a "big, impressive baritone that was slightly raw and unpolished." Earlier this spring, Bonner made his Metropolitan opera debut in Carmen and, for someone not not yet 30, he showed admirable self-awareness by admitting that his voice "is still settling." Bonner's potential in terms of the raw materials, however, seems most promising indeed.

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)

Michael Lodico, Washington National Opera: Hamlet behind the Iron Curtain (Ionarts, May 21)

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

Kate Wingfield, Ophelia Outing (Metro Weekly, May 27)

Lucia Anderson, "Hamlet" Has Been Onstage a Lot Lately--but as an Opera, Exercise Caution (Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star, May 27)

Charles T. Downey, 'Hamlet' ohne Damrau (Ionarts, May 19)

Emily Cary, Washington National Opera presents unique take on 'Hamlet' (Washington Examiner, May 18)

Derek Kravitz, Washington National Opera surprises people on Mall with five-minute performances (Washington Post, May 16)
The rest of the cast was the same as opening night, when Michael Lodico reviewed the production for Ionarts. Elizabeth Futral seemed to have a stronger command of the role of Ophélie, giving a fine if not quite dazzling performance in the mad scene. Director Thaddeus Strassberger's ingenious solution to the extended mad scene -- staging the last part of it with Ophélie suspended on the water among icy shards broken by her plunge into it, as if we are viewing the lake from above -- was intensely beautiful, although the time to prepare the scene deters from the sense of dramatic continuity. Samuel Ramey had glimmers of his former power that came through the moments of uncontrolled vibrato and remained a powerful presence on stage, like an old lion, matched by the intensity of Elizabeth Bishop's Gertrude. John Tessier was silvery and slightly nasal as Laërte, and John Marcus Bindel gave another solid appearance as the Ghost, although Strassberger's weakness in this production was that the Ghost is not all that scary.

Even with about an hour of music excised, most notably all or most of Act IV (the unrelated ballet and divertissement scene of La Fête du printemps), Hamlet still has some unavoidable longueurs. An impatient hand, like that of Patrick Fournillier who conducted on opening night, will not allow the many beautiful moments in the score to unfold. Appearing on the podium in spite of recent health problems, General Director Plácido Domingo took a more relaxed approach, which was more effective. There were the inevitable ensemble schisms, as the beat became unclear, especially at transitions between tempi, but on the whole the orchestra played beautifully, including lovely solo turns for horn, trombone, clarinet, and of course saxophone. Strassberger decided to underscore the newness of that instrument at the time of the opera's premiere by staging the solo as if it were being played by a pink-satin Playboy bunny during the players' entertainment. It did not make much sense but did provide a much-needed moment of levity.

The 2010-2011 season at Washington National Opera includes only five staged operas, with Verdi's Un Ballo in Maschera, Strauss's Salome, and Gluck's Iphigénie en Tauride at the top of my list. Recitals by Juan Diego Flórez and Bryn Terfel round out the season.

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