‘Five acts - and not a minute of boredom!, someone said as the excited crowd started pushing its way towards the exit of the WNO.
Directed and designed by Thaddeus Strassberger, Ambroise Thomas’ Hamlet clearly crowned the company’s season.
Set in the 1950-s, in Denmark “fallen behind the Iron Curtain”, it takes place “in and around the Castle of Elsinore”, which resembles a grand half-destroyed theater. Its dead coldness and pompousness is emphasized by the dark galleries and graffiti covered walls.
In Carre and Barbier’s version, used for this production, all the characters die at the end, with the exception of Queen Gertrude. She and Claudius, the evil duo of the opera, team up to murder Hamlet’s father, which could not be more fitting for the given epoch, notorious for ambitious and blood-thirsty dictators.
A keen stage director, Strassberger captures the audience’s attention at the first note of the overture, and does not let up for one minute! He surprises, shocks, combines incompatible things (his Hamlet smokes cigarettes and carries a sword), but never without a good reason! There is always a clever thought, a clear point or a wise question behind his concept.
An insane fusion of music and drama, this production offers both visual showstoppers and incredibly deep acting.
To the sounds of the overture, a coffin is carried right through the house. Banners with an image of a raised fist are up everywhere. Leaflets with words République Nationale are tossed from the ceiling right into the orchestra, while the statue of the late king is being pulled down in front of the celebrating crowd.
This scene does not only make the audience almost physically involved in the action (orchestra audience could not be happier to catch those leaflets), but also raises an important question:
Who actually was Hamlet’s father: a kind and fair ruler, who fell the victim of his scheming family or an evil tyrant who had to be brought down at any cost?
Strassberger keeps the options open and leaves it up to the audience to search the ultimate answer.
The most phantasmagorical scene and a true showstopper is the so-called Floating Scene, in which Strassberger lets the audience witness the impossible. We get to watch Ophelie sinking into the water and “overhear” the last scattered thoughts of her disturbed mind, right before it stops working.
A curtain resembling pieces of a broken mirror scattered along a dark blue background, splits up to show Ophelie, swinging against a similar “broken mirror” background, with her arms outstretched and waving and her dress spread as if she were floating in the water. Along with a soft off-stage chorus, she sings a subtle aria about her quiet revenge to Hamlet.
As it comes to an end, the parts of the “broken mirror” curtain draw back together and the whole stage blacks out.
In the rest of the production, Strassberger intentionally draws all the expressive means to the minimum, thus giving his cast an opportunity to shine and “fill in the gaps” with their voices and acting.
‘I like the fact that the design and the concept do not do all the work, says Strassberger.
‘As with a piece of jewelry, these elements provide only the setting, while the true gems of the evening are the performers onstage and in the pit’.
He could not possibly say it any better.
When it was announced that both Diana Damrau and Carlos Alvarez had withdrawn from the whole run of Hamlet and were replaced by younger artists, some people were skeptical about the consequences of this major change.
However, the production was an incredible success, in part due to the bold and most believable character interpretation that the new leads were able to offer, thus proving that at times it’s a breath of fresh air that makes an opera truly unforgettable.
Liam Bonner and Michael Chioldi shared the role of Hamlet, and Elizabeth Futral stepped in as Ophelie.
A rising baritone Liam Bonner offered a bold, multi-faceted and youthful interpretation of the character.
Every time he came onstage, he managed to bring in yet a new and different Hamlet.
His character was emotional, cynical, sarcastic, neurotic, desperate, vulnerable, passionate, violent, mature and yet naïve.
A baritone of a lighter, almost tenor-like quality, Liam Bonner probably came as close as possible to Thomas’ original vision of this part, initially composed for a tenor. His clear voice won the audience over with its rich musicality, flexibility and beauty of tone.
The Drinking Song, one of the vocal and dramatic showstoppers, turned the coronation ball scene into a breathtakingly chilling show.
His To Be or Not to Be aria was absolutely out of this world. Lying down on the floor under the king’s open coffin, surrounded by marble busts of Claudius, the artist filled the aria with most genuine despair, pain and vulnerability of a child facing the cruel grown-up world.
Elizabeth Futral offered a beautiful and confident interpretation of Ophelie. Both vocally and dramatically, she was most persuasive in the Madness and Floating scenes.
Samuel Ramey, who sang Claudius, was not quite as impressive as he was expected to be. Even though his voice certainly showed some grandeur that used to conquer the audiences all around the world, at times it was shaky, muffled and lacked elasticity. Dramatically, he failed to reveal the evil energy that his character is supposed to possess.
A favorite of the WNO’s, Elizabeth Bishop, who sang Queen Gertrude, demonstrated an artful management of her voice. Even though dramatically she could be a little more persuasive in certain scenes, she came across strong and powerful in her mausoleum duet with Liam Bonner.
A young Canadian tenor John Tessier offered an elegant and refined interpretation of Laertes. Even though his part in the opera was relatively small, he still managed to produce an effect and impress the audience with the lyrical beauty of his voice.
I was just one of many audience members, incredibly happy to see Placido Domingo back in the pit, looking great and full of energy to get back to work. Lot of cheers and screams “Bravo, maestro!” came from the orchestra audience at the curtain call.
Thomas’ Hamlet boasts everything a gorgeous French opera has to offer: expressiveness and breathtaking dramatism on the one hand, and lyrical musicality and subtlety on the other.
Considering the opera fell into a most undeserved neglect after Thomas’ death and only recently has been revived by some major opera companies, one feels truly privileged to see it live. Nowadays, when operas are staged with a lot of boldness and originality, but rarely with a clear concept and good motivation, it is quite an honor to see Hamlet that has got it all, and yet, somehow, despite the plot differences, brings back that magic Shakespeare feel.
(The 1st 3 photos are courtesy of the WNO, and the last one was taken by yours truly during the curtain call).