Hamlet, Washington National Opera

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Liam Bonner and Elizabeth Futral in Ambroise Thomas’ “Hamlet” at Washington National Opera

Opera in five acts
Music by Ambroise Thomas
Libretto in French by Michel Carré and Jules Barbier, adapted from William Shakespeare’s play “Hamlet”
Conducted by Plácido Domingo
Directed by Thaddeus Strassberger
Washington National Opera
May 19 to June 4, 2010

Director  and set designer Thaddeus Strassberger has given Ambroise Thomas’ lyric opera “Hamlet” a harder edge than what was traditionally mounted. Strassberger’s production of this opera, which premiered at Lyric Opera of Kansas City in 2006, has been updated to a fantastic Denmark behind the Iron Curtain in the 1950s. On May 24, this reviewer saw the Strassberger version of “Hamlet” as presented by the Washington National Opera and believes that this mise-en-scène coupled together with a commanding set of talented singers made the just-over-three-hour opera worth seeing. One other detail important to the value of this production is that Strassberger chose the “so called Covent Garden ending,” in which Hamlet dies. Otherwise, English-speaking audiences who know Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” is a tragedy do not have to cope with the happy ending written into the Carré-Barbier libretto.

While the music is pleasant and interesting to listen to and was certainly led well with the magnetic energy of Plácido Domingo, nothing about the music matches the mood of Prince Hamlet and his ill fortune. Even so, with performers like baritone Liam Bonner (Hamlet), coloratura soprano Elizabeth Futral (playing Hamlet’s fiancée Ophélie), mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Bishop (Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude), and bass-baritone Samuel Ramey, the music exceeds mere entertainment. This is particularly so in Hamlet’s drunken scene, where he provides the so-called merrymaking. First he brings out a two-legged floozy cat (a female actor in a lascivious costume making lewd moves) and then he confronts his mother and uncle through a pantomime that reenacts his father’s death. Here Strassberger makes the panto king, queen, and the queen’s lover all dogs. Hamlet eventually crowns himself with the dog king’s crown. Something about the combination of Bonner’s acting and singing coupled with the costumes and staging makes this scene work.

Ophélie’s death scene has the same effect. Again, Strassberger provides the stage setting that rivets the attention. The river, which will be the place of Ophélie’s demise, is a lush white satin runner. Futral luxuriates in the copious fabric until she stands up and falls off the back of the stage presumably into deeper waters. Futral, the satin, and the music meld, and then we catch Ophélie in the web of the afterlife in an über dramatische display. In this super dramatic mise-en-scène, Futral is suspended from the ceiling and there she sings what almost sounds like a blues aria.

The castle walls pervade the scenery and are mostly oppressive in the way one would think of Moscow before the Iron Curtain fell. Mary Traylor’s costumes are eye catching. Some are beautiful, like the formal dresses worn by Gertrude and Ophélie. Traylor inserts 1950 design commentary when she puts Gertrude and Claudius in orange outfits. While the clothing is tasteful because the pieces fit the performers well and are mixed with complementary colors, Gertrude’s orange and beige dress, with its rotund skirt, is shocking to the austerity presented by the crowd that gathers out in the audience at the opening of the opera. Once Claudius appears in his muted orange sport jacket, one suspects Traylor is having a little too much fun.

What this production of “Hamlet” says is that productions by Strassberger are worth going out of one’s way to see.

Karren L. Alenier

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