by MICHAEL J. OPPERMAN
The bones of the story will be familiar to anyone who has taken a survey course in English literature. Hamlet, the heir to the throne of Denmark sees the ghost of his father who demands that his son avenge his death. The tricky thing is that, according to this ghost, the killer is the king’s brother in conspiracy with the king’s wife (otherwise known as Hamlet’s mother). Hamlet is driven mad (or acts mad) as he plots and second guesses revenge. His relationship with Ophelia, daughter of the king’s adviser, is on the rocks and his friendship with her brother heads for the skids. Much killing and dying ensues. Perfect fodder for an opera.
Ambroise Thomas‘ adaptation simplifies much of the action of the original play (Shakespeare still won’t speak to him), but retains the tragic essence of the work. Unfortunately Thomas, whose music is gorgeous, is largely forgotten today. The libretto by Michel Carre and Jules Barbier is efficient and clear. And apparently (a piece of trivia) Alexander Dumas (author of “The Three Musketeers” and “Count of Monte Christo”) was at the premier in 1868.
Director/designer Thaddeus Strassberger makes an inspired choice by setting the opera in an imagined Cold War era Denmark – complete with military funerals, ruined squares, and peasant shootings. Shakespeare’s work makes scant reference to the people who are ruled by the Elsinore royalty. In addition to providing provocative context and compelling visual material for the opera, Strassberger’s staging calls attention to the sociocultural divide between ruler and ruled. Claudius’ usurpation of the throne is also just the replacement of one dictator with another. This perspective interestingly compromises our sympathy for Hamlet’s father.
The first act opens with a televised procession celebrating the coronation of Gertrude (Katharine Goeldner) and her marriage to Claudius (Wayne Tigges), the flag and sign-waving chorus in the aisles of the Ordway. The combination of their two voices is mesmerizing. Opera News described Goeldner’s “mezzo [as] fluidly produced, with a dusky throb in the lower register” and the Chicago Sun-Times commended Tigges “rich, dark tone and beautiful legato.” Together, these deep voices brought a beautiful gravitas to the performance.
Outside of a gray-columned Elsinore with the snow falling, the combined voices of the chorus singing “que nos chants montent jusqu’aux cieux” (“let our songs rise to the skies”) are powerful and moving as they echo about the audience. A man is shot throwing paint (or blood) at the commemorative relief hanging over the celebration. Unceremoniously, he is later gathered up in a wheelbarrow and mocked by a Marcellus (John Robert Lindsey) and an eye-patched Horatio (Rodolfo Nieto).
The crowd clears as Hamlet (Brian Mulligan) and Ophelia (Marie-Eve Munger) ascend into a lovely duet affirming their love. They share a cigarette under the cold Denmark sky. The clarity of Munger’s singing is startling and she evinces determination and fragility, as well as a credible deterioration to suicide. The finale of Act 4, Ophelia’s suicidal “Mad Scene,” is wonderful and heartbreaking.
Mulligan is controlled fury, measured madness. His Hamlet perseverates and doubts without ever sacrificing authority. Mulligan has been praised by Opera News for his “velvety, evenly and effortlessly produced baritone and nuance-rich phrasing” and by Opera Now for his “commanding presence [and] booming sound.”
There are too many reasons to list to see this production of Hamlet. The opera is much more rarely staged than something by Verdi or Donzetti. The cast is outstanding, the combination of these voices rarified and remarkable. Strassberger’s staging is inventive, provocative and fabulous. This is also a great first opera to bring that friend to see, to introduce to your boyfriend, with which to treat your mother.
Hamlet by Ambroise Thomas. Presented by the Minnesota Opera, March 5, 7, 9 & 10. Information at http://www.mnopera.org/season/2012-2013/hamlet.