While some of William Shakespeare’s other plays have inspired more than one great opera, Hamlet seems to have resisted the operatic treatment through the centuries. Despite the play’s swordfights, court intrigue, and great outbursts of emotion, composers have seemed put off by its stature and philosophical flourishes. Nevertheless, in 1868, a French composer named Ambroise Thomas tried his hand at it and turned the play into a Parisian grand opera in the style that was popular at the time. Initially popular, the work fell into obscurity for many decades and only started attracting attention again around the 1980s. Now as part of Fort Worth Opera’s 2015 festival, the company is mounting a production of Hamlet with a cast of exceptionally fine singers, but it still can’t quite convince us that the opera is anything more than a historical curiosity.
The production imagines Hamlet’s Denmark as a 20th-century Soviet bloc nation, and the opening chorus features members of the chorus partying it up and singing their praise of King Claudius in the aisles of Bass Hall, with the revelry coming to a sudden end when a protester on the stage throws red paint at the royal seal and is promptly shot dead by the new king’s soldiers. It’s a cleverly immersive gambit on the part of director Thaddeus Strassberger, an Oklahoman and a newcomer to FWO who has staged operas all over Europe. He also comes up with a great macabre touch when the Ghost (Stephen Clark) appears to Hamlet and removes his military dress uniform to reveal a huge bloodstain spilling from his left ear onto his white shirt. However, he can’t do much with the rest of the work, which belongs in the great 19th-century operatic tradition of “one singer sings while everybody else gets out of the way.” The new setting doesn’t add much to the theatrical experience, other than allowing the saxophonist to appear on stage during an extended solo for the instrument before the play-within-the-opera. (Saxophones have been around for longer than you might think.)
By the way, the production uses the so-called “Covent Garden ending,” composed by Thomas in 1870 to bring the opera closer to the play for the benefit of foreign crowds. Such was the demand for happy endings among Parisian opera audiences that the original work ended with Hamlet surviving and being crowned king. Insane, right? Fort Worth Opera gives us a conclusion that we’ll find more recognizable.
I tried and failed to find a weak spot in the cast, which is the best reason to see the show. One reason for the recent Hamlet revival is that it provides a great showcase for a baritone, and Wes Mason (who sang Marcello in FWO’s La Bohème last year) grabbed the chance with both hands. He turned in a worthy account of the “To be or not to be” aria (“Être ou ne pas être”) and Hamlet’s drinking song (“Ô vin, dissipe la tristesse”) and was dynamic onstage, leaping through the air, wielding a sword, and causing a suitably ugly drunken scene when the prince uses the play to expose his uncle as a murderer.
FWO veteran Robynne Redmon, last seen here in the regional premiere of Dead Man Walking, chipped in with a piercing contribution as Gertrude (“Pardonne, hélas! Ta voix m’accable”), and Kim Josephson’s Claudius was little short of glorious in his prayer for forgiveness (“Je t’implore, ô mon frère”).
Coming close to stealing this show outright was Talise Trevigne as Ophélie. Thomas couldn’t resist writing a Donizetti-style mad scene for the character (probably his best music in the whole work), and pretty much the entire fourth act is devoted to an aria she sings (“Pâle et blonde dort sous l’eau profonde”) as a prelude to drowning herself. Trevigne’s creamy soprano was a treat to hear, and you could be forgiven for thinking that the whole reason Fort Worth Opera staged this Hamlet was just for this scene.
It’s not easy putting aside your memories of stage and film productions of Hamlet — much of the opening-night audience had trouble, judging from the inappropriate giggles that ballooned up whenever a well-known Shakespearean line showed up on the supertitles. Fort Worth Opera’s Hamlet won’t give you an experience as powerful as a well-staged version of the play, but it will provide some memorable performances for our community of opera lovers.
Thru Sun. Bass Performance Hall, 555 Commerce St, FW. $17-195. 817-212-4280.[/box_info]