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May 20, 2010

Washington National Opera's "Hamlet" packs musical, theatrical power

By a curious coincidence, when I took a break from my obsessive listening to traffic reports while driving to the Kennedy Center on Wednesday and switched to the Met Radio channel on XM/Sirius, lo and behold, I suddenly heard music of Ambroise Thomas -- a broadcast from the 1940s of "Mignon." That seemed like a fortuitous sign.

Here I was about to attend a performance of the composer's "Hamlet," an opera that only rarely gets attention in the world today, and I was suddenly enjoying a little taste of his "Mignon," which has slipped even more from the public consciousness. I felt like I was being swept up in some sort of Bring Back Ambroise Thomas campaign. After all, only a few months ago, the Met put "Hamlet" on its stage after an absence of more than a century, and Washington National Opera decided to tackle its first-ever "Hamlet." Cool.

Anyway, the point is (you didn't think I had one, did you?) was that I was already in a very Thomas-friendly mood as I took my seat. But that still didn't prepare me for what followed -- a revelatory, riveting production of an unjustly neglected work. With this staging of "Hamlet," Washington National Opera has saved the best 'til last for its season, and you'd be as crazy as Ophelia to miss it.

Thomas and his librettists have taken a lot of heat since 1868 for their adaptation of the Shakespeare play, especially for the original semi-happy ending (the Moody Dane lives!). And, even with the composer's revised ending used for the Washington production (he dies), it's still possible to quibble about plot details. But what a waste of time that would be. The opera respects the original source well enough, while providing a continuously appealing musical framework. Is the score the work of a genius? No. So what? Thomas had an undeniable gift for ear-friendly tunes and colorful orchestration. In his own modest way, he produced a viable and valuable vehicle for good old-fashioned grand opera. All it needs to come vividly to life is an imaginative touch, and that's what WNO provides. The result is a damn good fusion of music and theater. 

Director/set designer Thaddeus Strassberger has placed the action in a grim Cold War totalitarian state, where the murderous power-grab of Claudius and Gertrude takes on an extra sinister connotation, and he intensifies the drama by adding to the opera's original corpse count (bringing it more in line with Shakespeare's play). 

The opening scene is quite the attention-grabber, with  people in dark coats pulling down the statue of the dead king near a graffiti-covered, Berlin Wall-like barrier, and a crowd pouring into the aisles to hail the new leader. The visual intensity never lets up, reaching a peak of brilliant stagecraft during the mad scene for Ophelie (the French spelling is used in the opera). The crowning kaleidoscopic effect -- I don't want to spoil it by giving away too many details --is terrifically daring, but also so right. This scene, the most famous part of the opera (sopranos have long cherished its show-off opportunities), sticks out from the rest of the score anyway, so Strassberger has taken full advantage of that to devise a super-theatrical experience out of it.        

So many of the sights in this production are striking -- artfully arranged ensemble scenes; thugs burning books in the background; a fanciful take on the pantomime that Hamlet arranges to test the new king's guilt. There's something extra chilling about the gravediggers scene, where the two men and their floozy dates toss trash from a picnic into what will be Ophelie's final resting place. The first, smoky appearance of the ghost, however, is a bit on the cheesy side, but that's a minor disappointment. Mary Traylor's impeccably tailored costume design adds greatly to the effectiveness of the concept, especially the orange outfits for Claudius and Gertrude that suggest the stylish look of a Douglas Sirk film. Mark McCullough's perfectly timed lighting adds greatly to the theatrical flourish of the production.

Obviously, the drama of "Hamlet" has to be fired by singers as much as any directorial flourishes. I found the cast ultimately satisfying Monday night, despite reservations here and there. Most crucially, the title role was     


persuasively performed by baritone Michael Chioldi, who offered an admirable evenness and warmth of tone, consistently sensitive phrasing. A little more volume would have been welcome in places, but this was still very potent singing. His acting, too, hit home. He conveyed the character's brush with madness tellingly, and, in the confrontation with the frightened Gertrude (one of the opera's most inspired passages), Chioldi hit a dramatic peak to match the vividness of his vocalism. Elizabeth Futral was a tender, sympathetic Ophelie and, occasional graininess aside, sang with considerable beauty and nuance. Her colorful delivery of the mad scene set off a remarkable ovation.

In the case of veteran bass Samuel Ramey, as Claudius, you're faced with having to make allowances for a voice that is now in Wobble City. Ultimately, I found that drawback fading as the evening progressed, since Ramey generated so much expressive heat and created such a convincing characterization. 

Elizabeth Bishop, as Gertrude, strained on top notes, but otherwise sang with a ripe, penetrating tone and put an incisive spin on every phrase. John Tessier's light, bright tenor served him well as Laertes. John Marcus Bindel was a vocally pale Ghost. Aleksey Bogdanov and Jesus Daniel Hernandez made the most of their brief appearance as the Gravediggers.

The chorus summoned an impressive sound. The orchestra, guided in sure, elegant fashion by conductor Patrick Fournillier, was in fine form; excellent horn, trombone and saxophone solos helped underline the elegant craftsmanship of the score.

"Hamlet" may never enjoy a big presence in the repertory, but Washington National Opera's triumphant production makes an awfully strong case for it.  



Posted by Tim Smith at 5:38 PM | | Comments (7)


Thanks Tim for another spot-on review. I hope it made it into the paper proper. Here we continue to rail against the Post critic who alas holds such lofty standards of unattainable perfection as to serve as a deterrent to opera.
We were at opening night and I agree with every point you make. And I thought the Ophelie scene you allude to - especially the second one - was inspired. (Although we DID wonder if it was the same cloud as Turandot's emperor!)

Hey, I hadn't thought of that Turandot possibility. Cool. That floating part of the scene may have nudged right up against the realm of kitsch, but, to me, never crossed the border. I thought it was simply transporting. By the way, my review (at least an abridged version) is supposed to see the light of print on Sunday. Thanks for commenting. TIM

Tim, I enjoyed this production last night. Yes, Tessier is the tenor I spoke of in a recent commnet, and I'm glad he wasn't hit by the cast-change curse. Futral, unfortunately, was hit by it in the middle of last night's peformance! She's been suffering from allergies. Her understudy, the wonderful Micaela Oeste, took over after intermission and was the lucky one who got to "ride" in that watery scene.

I love hearing about extra drama in the opera house. Too bad for Miss Futral, though. I hope she gets back on track. I plan to catch another performance late in the run, 'cause I really did enjoy it that much. TIM

Loved the sight gag when the pantomime of the king, in full dog mask and costume, saunters over to the column that props up the king's bust, extends a leg out and takes a whiz. There's abundant comedy too!

Thanks for the insightful review, I enjoyed reading it.

Tim, my wife and I attended Saturday evening’s performance of WNO’s production of “Hamlet” and we both enjoyed it—but for very different reasons. My enjoyment came after the performance: whenever I started to talk about the opera and this production I simply started to laugh. Although I appreciate that you found this to be “a revelatory, riveting production of an unjustly neglected work,” I found it a consistently flawed production of an opera that has rightly earned its place in a century-long omission from the repertory.

I fundamentally disagree that “the opera respects the original source well enough, while providing a continuously appealing musical framework.” The two-dimensional “Hamlet” I saw on stage did not remotely resemble or reinterpret the complex character of Shakespeare’s creation, while Thomas’s eagerness to make certain the audience knew just when to applaud the singers—the music’s getting louder, we’ll be ending the aria on high notes, we’ll repeat the concluding cadence in the orchestra—became tedious long before we reached the intermission. I wouldn’t quibble with the story line or the characters if they were not so misapplied to their source; after all, “Otello” and “Falstaff” work in opera and Shakespeare is hardly demeaned by those works. But a Hamlet who sings a soliloquy so hacked that he repeats “to be or not to be”? Why the candle wasn’t blown out before this concoction saw the light of day, now that is the question.

Preferences for certain expressions of the operatic art may largely be a matter of taste, but basics of theatrical presentation should not be, and at the performance Saturday night I wondered about the basics. Here I might note that in the last year I have seen thirteen operas performed live, at Glimmerglass, and in Chicago, Philadelphia, New York City, and Washington. “Hamlet” was the fourth opera I saw in DC, and I was distressed to observe production standards far below those I have come to respect in Washington, standards that hold their own well in comparison with other houses. To give a few examples from Saturday: Frequently I saw half or more of the faces of principals hidden in shadows while they sang. Costumes I found either confusing or distracting (from the opening scene the “Cold War totalitarian” setting gave me a choice of Cossack, National Socialist [pre-Cold War], and South American dictator looks to choose from, while nearly every costume for the Gertrude of Elizabeth Bishop could, at the most charitable, be described as hideous). And why were the men constantly taking off, and putting on, their jackets? This includes the Ghost, who managed to leave his jacket with Hamlet at the end of one scene (a most corporeal spirit or hallucination), only to have it on again in the next. Dancing: In his day Adolphe Sax was universally disliked, but he earned my sympathetic pity while watching the dancer try move up and down the raked platform pretending to play a faux sax, not always in sync with the instrument in the pit. Staging: even though I was sitting in the center of the house I could see only the legs of Laertes when he died against the stage left wall; and why was the body of the elder Hamlet in a glass coffin without a lid, other than to give his son a way to grab a sword—but by then the stench in the tomb must have been overwhelming. Claudius at least had the courtesy to dismiss the guards from the tomb, but they were there to hear Hamlet’s initial introspection before the arrival of the king. No palace secrets here.

The most disarming stage effect, however, was the beatification of the diva as a water nymph. Of course we watched her drown at the end of one scene, after which the curtain fell and we listened to the noise of the stage hands working while the house was dark and the orchestra silent. The next scene brought Ophelie back to sing more, though often notes without words. The visual effect was stunning. The dramatic effect was nonexistent. It would have worked just as well—no, better—in the concert hall. That being said, the performance by the substituting Micaela Oeste justly earned the wild approval of the audience, both at the end of the scene and following the final curtain.

I might quibble with some aspects of the principal performances. I agree that Michael Chioldi “offered an admirable evenness and warmth of tone, consistently sensitive phrasing”—and, unfortunately, consistent evenness of volume. Elizabeth Futral was indeed “a tender, sympathetic Ophelie”—but her substitute more effectively conveyed the young woman’s fragility and vulnerability, if with less vocal power. Samuel “If I were king of the forest” Ramey delivered his notes with vibrato that was extraordinary in its breadth. But these are indeed quibbles over fine performances by excellent artists who I think were given huge challenges to overcome.

I would not say WNO “saved the best ‘til last” in this season—every other opera and performance I saw this season was by far superior—but I am glad I did not miss it. After all, with any luck, this “Hamlet” won’t appear again until sometime in the 22nd century.

Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln.... TS

Went for the second time tonight (ticket place does cut price tix). This opera wears well, and holds together dramatically, although none of the arias are as catchy as Puccini .. But that complexity is part of the beauty of the opera. Futral sounded as good as she did the first night, and Liam Bonner was great in his first outing as Hamlet. The love duet makes you wonder why tenors usually get the girls in opera, and Bonner's expressiveness in his higher register after the first encounter with the
ghost was marvelous...

I went to see Hamlet on Monday, May 24th and was very impressed with this production, especially with how bold, contemporary and yet, pretty Shakespearian ( never mind the differences) it was.
Liam Bonner was incredible. He has an amazing voice and outstanding acting abilities.
His "To Be or Not To Be" was out of this world!
If you see it again (it certainly deserves to be seen several times), try to see it with Liam Bonner - you won't regret it.
P.S. The floating scene was amazing - the last scattered thoughts of a disturbed mind, right before it stoppped working.

Thanks for commenting. I really love your description of the floating scene. TIM

Hi Tim:
I was very fortunate to do a phone interview with Liam Bonner, which I just posted on my blog today.
Please feel free to use this link

to take a look.
Best wishes!

Thanks. I'm glad I got to hear him on the last night of the run. A fine Hamlet, indeed. TIM

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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