Although a substantial success for several decades after its 1868 premiere, the grand opera version of "Hamlet" by Ambroise Thomas fell into neglect, even in the composer's home country of France. To paraphrase one of Hamlet's lines from the Shakespeare original: How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable seemed all the uses of this opera.
But recent years have seen a resurgence of interest in Thomas' "Hamlet" on both sides of the Atlantic. A couple of months ago, the piece returned to the stage of New York's Metropolitan Opera after an absence of 113 years. And this week, Washington National Opera offers its first-ever production of the work, itself an updating of a Lyric Opera of Kansas City staging from 2006.
Has "Hamlet's" time come again?
"It is a work the public should know," says Placido Domingo, the stellar tenor and general director of Washington National Opera.
Having recovered from recent cancer surgery — "Everything came out well and here I am, working as always with the same enthusiasm," he says — Domingo will conduct four of the seven performances of "Hamlet" at the Kennedy Center. "I really like the piece very much," he adds. "It may not be perfect from beginning to end, but it has many beautiful pages. It's compact and very well done."
Liam Bonner, the vibrant young baritone who will alternate in the title role with Michael Chioldi (both are substitutes for the originally announced Carlos Alvarez), is another admirer of the piece. "I'm not sure why it got lost over the years," Bonner says. "I know a lot of people who are wary of it. But I love it. It's a very challenging work and complex on many levels."
Although its detractors may think there's something rotten in the state of this opera, "Hamlet" remains one of the most impressive of French grand operas. Thomas seems to have had a soft spot for Shakespeare. One of his earlier comic operas suggests an early version of "Shakespeare in Love" — the plot has the Bard cavorting with Elizabeth I.
When he turned to "Hamlet," the composer seemed particularly inspired. His is the first opera, for example, to include a saxophone in the orchestra (for added color). The music reveals consistent melodic beauty and refined orchestral coloring.
Thomas' librettists, Michael Carre and Jules Barbier, preserved the essence of the source material to a remarkable degree. Sure, a whole bunch of characters and scenes were excised to create a workable vehicle for singing. And sure, the opera initially allowed a happy ending of sorts, with the moody Danish prince still standing to be proclaimed king. But, hey, what's a little poetic license?
Besides, Thomas quickly came up with an alternate to that finale, where Hamlet dutifully dies after killing the duplicitous Claudius. This revision is typically used these days, and will be by Washington National Opera.
As Peter G. Davis, writing a "Hamlet" defense in The New York Times before the Met's long-overdue revival, put it: "Nothing could be easier than to beat the opera with a stick for what it doesn't do or for how far it strays from the source, but that would miss the point."
And the point, as Davis underlines, is that "'Hamlet' generates its own theatrical frissons when placed in the right hands and treated sympathetically."
Thaddeus Strassberger, the director and set designer for the D.C. "Hamlet" is certainly sympathetic. "I don't think there's a weak moment of music if you look at it in a dramatic context," he says.
Although there's a vivid drinking song for Hamlet and a "Lucia di Lammermoor"-worthy mad scene for Ophelia, the opera doesn't boast hit tunes.
"You can't extract two seconds to use in a laundry detergent commercial," Strassberger says. "But Thomas' use of the orchestra creates sonic pictures illustrating and describing settings and feelings very clearly. The opera goes by so quickly. You're never sitting there looking at your watch. The Act 3 duet for Hamlet and Gertrude is one of the most exciting scenes I've ever had the privilege to stage; the emotions in it turn corners you don't expect."
Elizabeth Futral, the silvery-voiced soprano who will make her role debut as Ophelia in the Washington production (substituting for Diana Damrau, who bowed out after becoming pregnant), sounds an equally appreciate note.
"I think there are enough tunes in it for people," she says, "and the linking thematic material in the score is really well crafted. The music doesn't always go where you think it will harmonically."
Adds Bonner: "The piece is brilliantly written for the voice." The baritone will be singing his first Hamlet for this production, close on the heels of his debut as Horatio in the Met's production of the opera in March. "Hamlet's got to be one of the biggest roles in the baritone repertoire," Bonner says. "And it's so rare, outside the Verdi repertoire, for a baritone to have the part of such a complex character. I love this role."
Futral's introduction to the work occurred two decades ago when she was a chorus member at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, which staged the piece with celebrated baritone Sherrill Milnes, a strong "Hamlet" advocate. "I fell in love with it then," the soprano says. "I started using the mad scene as an audition piece."
For the Washington production, the soprano will perform that mad scene in a staging that is "a little more haunting and a little more weird than usual," she says. "There is a nice finish when she drowns, but I'm not going to tell you what that is."
The broader elements in Strassberger's concept are not secrets. He has updated the action of the play to post- World War II.
"If Denmark had fallen on the other side of the Iron Curtain," the director says, "what sort of world would it have been? Shakespeare is not so grounded in a time and place. Romeo and Juliet don't have to be Italian to connect with them. Same with Hamlet. His Danish-ness is not what makes the character."
The directorial approach has a big fan in Bonner.
"This production is brilliant," he says. "It's genius. I know those terms can be thrown around too easily, but this is so well thought-out, visually and dramatically. It all makes sense. And there is always forward motion; this is not a park-and-bark production."
The soprano gives a ringing endorsement to another element in the production.
"I will say I have some of the best costumes I've ever worn, which, of course, is very important," Futral says with a laugh. "It's always fun to prance around in finery."
If you go
Washington National Opera's production of "Hamlet" will be performed at 7 p.m. Wednesday and Saturday and five more times through June 4 at the Kennedy Center. Tickets are $25 to $300. Call 800-876-7372 or go to dc-opera.org.