Review: Washington National Opera's 'Hamlet'

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 21, 2010; C05

"Hamlet," the opera, arrived in Washington on Wednesday night. If you didn't know there was an operatic version of "Hamlet," that's all right -- you really don't have to.

Ambroise Thomas's "Hamlet" (pronounced without the "H," being French), although wildly popular in its day (the late 19th and early 20th centuries), isn't done often. It isn't one of the great works. And it certainly isn't Shakespeare.

What it is is a tuneful, melodramatic, 19th-century opera and a star vehicle -- like most respectable operas of its ilk -- for a soprano. If you want an unusual opera for a light soprano looking for a challenge, this is just the thing. That, at least, has been the conventional wisdom this spring.

The Metropolitan Opera staged it in March for Natalie Dessay, who canceled. And the Washington National Opera's production was to showcase Diana Damrau, who also canceled, having been advised by her doctor to safeguard her pregnancy. Happily, Elizabeth Futral was able to learn the role of Ophelia on short notice and pull off a fine mad scene, the highlight in a long and rather pedestrian evening.

The Met's inoffensive modern production, which came from Geneva, was set in a generic place and time that the audience could easily accept as "historical" -- the main focus was on the singing. The Washington National Opera's production (originally staged at the Lyric Opera of Kansas City), by Thaddeus Strassberger, takes the opposite tack.

Strassberger set the opera in a fascist dictatorship in the 1950s, and on Wednesday, the production dominated the music. This wasn't hard, given the mediocre music-making led by conductor Patrick Fournillier's sometimes attractive but seldom coordinated efforts from the pit, along with some awfully awkward sounds from the orchestra. (Plácido Domingo will take over conducting duties for four performances, starting Saturday; Fournillier will conduct two more.)

Strassberger's opening was particularly arresting. After a funeral cortege bore the coffin of Hamlet's father through the auditorium during the overture, a dancing crowd of choristers invaded the audience for the first scene, cheering and waving banners in the aisles. Onstage, uniformed goons toppled a massive statue of the late ruler (a la Saddam Hussein), clearing the way for Claudius and Gertrude, flanked by uniformed militia, their arms extended in a malevolent raised-fist salute.

This was all theatrically effective, and it raised a good question: Was Hamlet's late father actually as good as Hamlet believes, or is Hamlet the deluded son of a tyrant? But since Thomas's opera is not actually about fascist dictatorships, this question couldn't really be explored, and the opening was left hanging.

Nor could the music be explored as deeply as it might have been, in part because both scheduled principals had canceled: Damrau and Carlos Alvarez, who was to play the baritone title role.

Cancellations are always difficult, but the Washington National Opera had the particular headache of finding singers willing to learn scarcely performed roles. Futral and Michael Chioldi, a gravelly baritone, negotiated opening night on relatively short notice. (Chioldi is alternating in the role with Liam Bonner, who will make his WNO debut Monday.)

They got through it decently -- notes and words, at least, were accurate -- but one might reasonably ask for more than decency at a supposedly major company. Chioldi was sometimes strained, although occasionally powerful; Futral took awhile to sing her way into her part, although by the time she got to the mad scene, she was quite effective. This is one case in which the performances will almost certainly develop and improve as the run goes on.

The evening's other scheduled star was Samuel Ramey (Claudius); he went on as planned, but his voice didn't. Ramey has come to the end of a wonderful career. On Wednesday, he could only marshal shards of his former vocal presence, with a few strong notes at key moments punctuating what amounts to a wobble instead of a clear vocal line.

As Gertrude, Elizabeth Bishop showed a lot more spunk; indeed, she virtually stole the show and made a lot of her part, thanks to her impressive singing, strong and wide-ranging.

John Tessier sang Laertes with a sound that was a little tight but penetrating.

After the pizazz of the opening, Strassberger couldn't keep the opera from seeming long-winded. And coming after his attempts at realism, Thomas's campy ending (Hamlet kills Claudius and dies on Ophelia's coffin) seemed all the weaker. Strassberger placed his own coup de theatre slightly earlier, at the end of Ophelia's mad scene.

After what appeared to be a suicidal plunge, the curtain went down (to thunderous applause), stayed closed for awhile, then reopened on a new tableau, with Ophelia finishing up her scene, presumably drowning, suspended in midair amid what appeared to be a stained-glass window of large colored shards that drifted gently apart. It was as if she had fallen into, and shattered, a huge mirror.

The image was visually gorgeous but dramatically disjointed, since it brought not only the action but the scene to a full stop. It was, however, an appropriate cap to an evening whose best parts had little to do with the work being performed: a fine act of stage direction, but a questionable work of opera.

Hamlet will be performed May 22, 24, 27 and 30 and June 1 and 4 at the Kennedy Center.

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