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Washington National Opera's "Hamlet" packs musical, theatrical power

By a curious coincidence, when I took a break from my obsessive listening to traffic reports while driving to the Kennedy Center on Wednesday and switched to the Met Radio channel on XM/Sirius, lo and behold, I suddenly heard music of Ambroise Thomas -- a broadcast from the 1940s of "Mignon." That seemed like a fortuitous sign.

Here I was about to attend a performance of the composer's "Hamlet," an opera that only rarely gets attention in the world today, and I was suddenly enjoying a little taste of his "Mignon," which has slipped even more from the public consciousness. I felt like I was being swept up in some sort of Bring Back Ambroise Thomas campaign. After all, only a few months ago, the Met put "Hamlet" on its stage after an absence of more than a century, and Washington National Opera decided to tackle its first-ever "Hamlet." Cool.

Anyway, the point is (you didn't think I had one, did you?) was that I was already in a very Thomas-friendly mood as I took my seat. But that still didn't prepare me for what followed -- a revelatory, riveting production of an unjustly neglected work. With this staging of "Hamlet," Washington National Opera has saved the best 'til last for its season, and you'd be as crazy as Ophelia to miss it.

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Thomas and his librettists have taken a lot of heat since 1868 for their adaptation of the Shakespeare play, especially for the original semi-happy ending (the Moody Dane lives!). And, even with the composer's revised ending used for the Washington production (he dies), it's still possible to quibble about plot details. But what a waste of time that would be. The opera respects the original source well enough, while providing a continuously appealing musical framework. Is the score the work of a genius? No. So what? Thomas had an undeniable gift for ear-friendly tunes and colorful orchestration. In his own modest way, he produced a viable and valuable vehicle for good old-fashioned grand opera. All it needs to come vividly to life is an imaginative touch, and that's what WNO provides. The result is a damn good fusion of music and theater.

Director/set designer Thaddeus Strassberger has placed the action in a grim Cold War totalitarian state, where the murderous power-grab of Claudius and Gertrude takes on an extra sinister connotation, and he intensifies the drama by adding to the opera's original corpse count (bringing it more in line with Shakespeare's play). 

The opening scene is quite the attention-grabber, with  people in dark coats pulling down the statue of the dead king near a graffiti-covered, Berlin Wall-like barrier, and a crowd pouring into the aisles to hail the new leader. The visual intensity never lets up, reaching a peak of brilliant stagecraft during the mad scene for Ophelie (the French spelling is used in the opera). The crowning kaleidoscopic effect -- I don't want to spoil it by giving away too many details --is terrifically daring, but also so right. This scene, the most famous part of the opera (sopranos have long cherished its show-off opportunities), sticks out from the rest of the score anyway, so Strassberger has taken full advantage of that to devise a super-theatrical experience out of it.

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So many of the sights in this production are striking -- artfully arranged ensemble scenes; thugs burning books in the background; a fanciful take on the pantomime that Hamlet arranges to test the new king's guilt. There's something extra chilling about the gravediggers scene, where the two men and their floozy dates toss trash from a picnic into what will be Ophelie's final resting place. The first, smoky appearance of the ghost, however, is a bit on the cheesy side, but that's a minor disappointment. Mary Traylor's impeccably tailored costume design adds greatly to the effectiveness of the concept, especially the orange outfits for Claudius and Gertrude that suggest the stylish look of a Douglas Sirk film. Mark McCullough's perfectly timed lighting adds greatly to the theatrical flourish of the production.

Obviously, the drama of "Hamlet" has to be fired by singers as much as any directorial flourishes. I found the cast ultimately satisfying Monday night, despite reservations here and there. Most crucially, the title role was

persuasively performed by baritone Michael Chioldi, who offered an admirable evenness and warmth of tone, consistently sensitive phrasing. A little more volume would have been welcome in places, but this was still very potent singing. His acting, too, hit home. He conveyed the character's brush with madness tellingly, and, in the confrontation with the frightened Gertrude (one of the opera's most inspired passages), Chioldi hit a dramatic peak to match the vividness of his vocalism. Elizabeth Futral was a tender, sympathetic Ophelie and, occasional graininess aside, sang with considerable beauty and nuance. Her colorful delivery of the mad scene set off a remarkable ovation.

In the case of veteran bass Samuel Ramey, as Claudius, you're faced with having to make allowances for a voice that is now in Wobble City. Ultimately, I found that drawback fading as the evening progressed, since Ramey generated so much expressive heat and created such a convincing characterization.

Elizabeth Bishop, as Gertrude, strained on top notes, but otherwise sang with a ripe, penetrating tone and put an incisive spin on every phrase. John Tessier's light, bright tenor served him well as Laertes. John Marcus Bindel was a vocally pale Ghost. Aleksey Bogdanov and Jesus Daniel Hernandez made the most of their brief appearance as the Gravediggers.

The chorus summoned an impressive sound. The orchestra, guided in sure, elegant fashion by conductor Patrick Fournillier, was in fine form; excellent horn, trombone and saxophone solos helped underline the elegant craftsmanship of the score.

"Hamlet" may never enjoy a big presence in the repertory, but Washington National Opera's triumphant production makes an awfully strong case for it.

PHOTOS BY KARIN COOPER

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