Opera Warhorses

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Michael Chioldi, Micaela Oeste Enrich Washington National Opera’s Theatrically Absorbing “Hamlet” – May 22, 2010

May 24th, 2010

When the Washington National Opera announced its first performances ever of Ambroise Thomas’ “Hamlet”, it seemed on paper an extraordinarily star-studded endeavor, with Carlos Alvarez as Hamlet, Diana Damrau as Ophelie and Placido Domingo conducting. Then the production came to seem star-crossed, with Alvarez withdrawing, a pregnant Damrau bowing out, and Domingo cutting back performances for medical reasons.

Eventually, the new casts were announced. Baritones Michael Chioldi and Liam Bonner would replace Alvarez, and Elizabeth Futral would be the new Ophelie. Domingo would split the conducting duties with Patrick Fournillier, the latter having the honor of the first performance, Domingo taking the second.  Who was to be Domingo’s Hamlet on his first night conducting had not yet been announced a half-week before that performance.

I chose the second performance, the first conducted by Domingo, to attend and review.  Eventually it was announced that Chioldi would sing the title role in both of the first two performances, including Domingo’s first. However, midway into that performance, it was revealed that yet another change of cast was to take place – that very evening.

After the sole intermission of Domingo’s first performance, it was announced that Futral, who had sung Ophelie during the first half, was battling allergies and that her cover, Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Micaela Oeste, would replace her for the second half. That half, or course, contains all of the music that makes the part of Ophelie so desirable to coloratura sopranos and attractive to audiences.

Although this set of circumstances is what drives opera managements to their wits’ end, the evening ended in triumph with enthusiastic standing ovations for Chioldi, Oeste and Domingo.

Angst in Soviet Bloc Elsinore

Thomas’ “Hamlet” has been experiencing a renaissance in the last few decades. This spring it is in the repertory of both the Metropolitan Opera and Washington National Opera – revived at the Met after being absent for the entire 20th century, presented at Kennedy Center for the first time ever.

Both productions were modernistic but quite different. Whereas the Met used the Patrice Caurier-Moshe Leiser sets from the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, WNO chose to refurbish an extraordinary production by Thaddeus Strassberger, originally developed for the Lyric Opera of Kansas City. Strassberger sets the opera in a postwar Soviet-style totalitarian state. The set is a decaying  three story structure, buttressed with corrugated tin, associated with a declining industrial state.

This is the fourth production I have reviewed in the past eight months, that is based on the idea that utilizing the images and costumes of Soviet bloc totalitarian states will make certain operas composed in the 18th and 19th century more relevant to 21st century audiences.

I had expressed reservations about locating Wagner’s “Lohengrin” in a Soviet bloc Brabant (see Summers Leads Sumptiously Sung “Lohengrin”: Houston Grand Opera, November 13, 2009) or Handel’s “Tamerlano” in a Soviet bloc Samarkand (see Domingo’s Towering “Tamerlano” Bajazet: Los Angeles Opera – November 22, 2009).

On the other hand, I applauded the striking idea of relocating Berlioz’ “Damnation of Faust”, which has defied most attempts to stage it, as a fantasy centered in Communist East Germany. Not only was the production theatrically defensible, it made Berlioz’ fantastic piece work as an opera, rather than simply a choral work with principal singers and orchestra (see Berlioz’ Faust Fantastique: Lyric Opera Does “Damnation” – Chicago, March 8, 2010).

And, to my pleasant surprise, I found the combination of Thomas’ music and the opera’s Barbier-Carre libretto reasonably fit Thaddeus Strassberger’s conception of Elsinore being part of a Danish Socialist Republic.

[Below: the statue of a totalitarian dictator is pulled down; edited image, based on a Karin Cooper photograph, courtesy of the Washington National Opera.]

Thomas’ “Hamlet” is not your Bard’s Hamlet. Barbier and Carre, the opera’s librettists, with the same dramatic license as they imposed on Goethe’s “Faust”, selected events from a Hamlet play by Alexandre Dumas, itself rather loosely based on the Bard’s work.

What is left is a core plot that can be summed up thusly: (1) Claudius has murdered his brother the king and married Gertrude the Queen, (2) the ghost of the murdered king appears to his son, Hamlet and persuades him to kill his murderer, (3) Hamlet’s fiancee Ophelie, whom Hamlet abandons to pursue the ghost’s directive, becomes mentally unstable and drowns, enraging her brother Laertes.

Although there are two endings (one in which Hamlet survives and is crowned King of Denmark), Strassberger has chosen the ending in which (4) Laertes, revenging his sister’s abandonment and death, mortally wounds Hamlet, who has enough life force left to slay Claudius.

The pantomime reenacting the king’s murder and the gravediggers scene are retained. To heighten the musical interest (and to create the settings for the most famous passages from the opera) the scene of the pantomime is preceded by a drinking song for the gathered guests and Ophelie’s madness and death become a central part of the last half of the opera.

Thus the opera has transformed Dumas’ reconceptualization of the Bard’s play to concentrate on the activities of four members of the royal family, three (Hamlet, Gertrude and Claudius) alive and one (the Ghost) dead, and Ophelie, Prince Hamlet’s intended bride. Most scenes, excepting those scenes of Ophelie’s madness and drowning (two separate scenes with intervening curtain in Strassberger’s production) are dominated by Hamlet.

The  baritone who sings Hamlet is onstage singing for a greater percentage of the opera’s performance time than the percentage of the play’s time his counterpart actor spends onstage. Its attraction to baritones comfortable with the French style is undeniable. Similarly, the part of the opera associated with Ophelie’s mental distress is  wholly dedicated to the coloratura virtuosity of the lead soprano.

However, Thomas’ music also contains some ceremonial music – introductory choruses, the party scene associated with the pantomime and Ophelie’s funeral procession – that must be staged and costumed. Theoretically, one could try a vaguely medieval setting, perhaps some tenth century Viking court, or something from Elizabethan times, or maybe  the Second French Empire of Louis Napoleon (which seemed reasonably eternal at the time of the opera’s premiere, even though two years later it would be swept away by history).

But Strassberger was attracted, as so many opera concept directors are, to the images of the failed Soviet bloc states – members of the Politboro assembled on balconies waving to The People, staged demonstrations, and the bodies of deceased dictators entombed in showcases designed for tourists to file past reverentially. Mary Traylor realized Strassberger’s costuming ideas, that included Soviet style overcoats and Russian-style fur hats.

Thomas’ musical passages enhance the onstage images Strassberger brings to this production – a succession of intimate dialogues between the principals, interspersed with the ceremonial music that fits Strassberger’s Iron Curtain spectacles quite nicely.

[Below: a scene from Strassberger’s original production for the Lyric Opera of Kansas City, in which the cast principals assemble to be seen by The People; edited image from a photograph from www.tstrassberger.com.]

“Hamlet” Reborn

Thomas’ “Hamlet” is one of a group of French Second Empire works by Grand Prix de Rome winners (including Gounod and Bizet)  that were revolutionary in their day, even as they came to be considered old-fashioned by many critics and musicologists. Gounod’s “Faust” has never ceased to be an audience favorite and his “Romeo et Juliette” has been revived often enough over the decades as to constitute  part of any truly comprehensive list of the standard operatic repertory. Bizet’s “Pearl Fishers”, on the other hand, is performed much more often in the 21st century than it ever was in the 19th or 20th.

The resurrection of Thomas’ “Hamlet” in the United States and Europe may be a surprise to many opera goers. I first saw it in a memorable 1978 mounting by the San Diego Opera for Sherill Milnes and Ashley Putnam (repeated in 1983 with William Justus and Gianna Rolandi). It was first performed by the San Francisco Opera in 1996 for Thomas Hampson and Ruth Ann Swenson. The role attracted Bo Skovhus, who received a Royal Opera House, Copenhagen production in 2005 (a Dane playing the Danish prince in Denmark), and Simon Keenlyside, who starred in both the Covent Garden production with Natalie Dessay and its performances at the Met this season with Marlis Pedersen.

The roles of Hamlet and Ophelie are such extraordinary parts for, respectively, dramatic baritones and coloratura sopranos comfortable with singing in French, and the two principal co-starring roles, Gertrude and Claudius, are such interesting assignments for mezzo and bass-baritone that there would be sentiment to revive the opera for those reasons alone.

However, Thomas’ music is actually much more interesting than its reputation. The most famous showpieces fit nicely into a matrix that has the “through-composed” sound much closer to modern styles of composition than many of the operas contemporary to it.

Certainly, Strassberger’s ideas are beyond anything that Thomas, Barbier or Carre could have imagined, but Strassberger never seems to be in irreconcilable conflict with the original material. To my mind, if Strassberger helps attract audiences (and opera company general managers) not only to the opera’s inherent theatricality, but to its substance as well, he has done a service to French opera.

Notes on the Production

The first few moments of the opera are those in which Strassberger’s Soviet ideas are concentrated. The house darkens and Placido Domingo leads the Washington National Opera orchestra in the mellifluous prelude. Then the orchestra section’s side doors open as a parade of  uniformed Soviet officers march into the Kennedy Center’s main floor. The house lights come on to reveal a crowd of choristers dressed as 1950s style proletariat members, who wave placards and sing praises of their glorious leaders, as leaflets are showered from the Kennedy Center’s upper recesses.

Here Thomas’ fanfares, which would fit nicely with Stalinist musical tastes, sound as the living members of both the Royal family and that of Polonius assemble as might a soviet politboro in a show of whom is in favor with the current regime. The Soviet homage continues with the toppling of a statue of the old king, Hamlet’s father, reminiscent of events that occurred after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

However, soon we move into the world of the principal singers, who ultimately are more concerned with their personal relationships with each other than affairs of state. This was my first opportunity to hear  Michael Chioldi in a principal role, although my colleague Tom, two months ago, reviewed his performance in the title role of a quite different opera by John Adams (see his review at Richard M. Nixon and Mao Zedong Dance at Smashing Long Beach Opera “Nixon in China” – March 20, 2010.)

Chioldi, a graduate of San Francisco Opera’s Merola program and the Houston Grand Opera young artists’ program, proved an effective Hamlet, with the vocal weight and expressiveness to convey the character’s emotional range and the acting ability to make his interactions with such diverse folks as Gertrude,  the Ghost and the Gravediggers absorbing and interesting.

Futral, by contrast, in the early scenes seemed uncharacteristically underpowered – as if she were preserving her voice for the vocal fireworks later in the opera.  Of course, one might expect a “Goetterdaemmerung” Bruennhilde  to ration her vocal resources, but Futral is an artist that just last month had great success as Violetta in Verdi’s “La Traviata”, a part that hits the vocal ground running and never lets up for the entire four acts. (See Tom’s review of Futral’s Violetta at Mega-opulent “Traviata” a Spectacular Finish to San Diego Opera’s Season – April 23, 2010.)

[Below: Hamlet (Michael Chioldi) with Ophelie (Elizabeth Futral); edited image, based on a Karin Cooper photograph, courtesy of the Washington National Opera.]

Towards the end of the opera’s first half (Thomas’ Act II), Futral displayed a much fuller sound, but it was not a surprise when the announcement was made that she was feeling indisposed, and would withdraw from the final half.

Chioldi’s Hamlet encounters his father’s Ghost (John Marcus Bindel), dressed in the military uniform of his former life, who confirms Hamlet’s suspicions about Claudius’ treachery. Thomas’ Ghost is not an instrument of terror, but rather more a messenger from the otherworld with some essential exposition that will determine Hamlet’s actions for the rest of the opera. (For my review of an unscheduled aapearance by Bindel in a principal role, see The Donizetti Revival, Second Stage: Radvanovsky, Grigolo in Pascoe’s WNO “Lucrezia Borgia” – November 17, 2008.)

[Below: The Ghost of Hamlet’s Father (John Marcus Bindel); edited image, based on a Karin Cooper photograph, courtesy of the Washington National Opera.]

Elizabeth Bishop’s Queen Gertrude was dramatically sung, Bishop’s rich mezzo voice adding to a fully formed characterization of this extremely conflicted character, after Hamlet the best developed of the opera.

However, the most arresting singing of the opera came from Micaela Oeste, who, a protege of Domingo who previously had publicly expressed admiration for her vocal abilities, suddenly was called upon to replace the ailing Futral for the opera’s most celebrated scenes – Ophelie’s expressions of dismay at her rebuff by Hamlet.

Ophelie’s mad scene is the French response to Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor” of three decades earlier. Like Lucia (or Lucie in a remake of the opera Donizetti prepared for the French provinces), Ophelie’s mad scene abounds with the vocally taxing trills, cadenzas and chromatic passages that define the coloratura’s art, in this setting a scene of lightly falling snow..

Oeste showed not only flawless technique, but was able to portray the confusion and vulnerability of this unhinged spirit. After the curtain fell the audience was unanimous in a sustained ovation that lasted several minutes. However, to the delight of the audience not fully familiar with the opera, this was not the end of Ophelie’s or Oeste’s singing.

[Below: Domingo-Cafritz artist Micaela Oreste; edited image, based on a photograph, courtesy of the Washington National Opera.]

In the most lyrical of Strassberger’s concepts, a stage curtain fell and the house was dark for a scene change. Then, in a magical scene, Ophelie, who had succumbed to the beckoning of the wilis, was seen suspended vertically above the stage, surrounded by the patterns of the rushes and reeds at the periphery of the river in which Ophelie drowns. This was the final part of Ophelie’s great scene, and it likely seemed to many in the audience as if the entire scene was invented for Oeste alone.

[Below: Hamlet (Michael Chioldi) confronts Gertrude (Elizabeth Bishop) at the monument for his father; edited image, based on a Karin Cooper photograph, courtesy of the Washington National Opera.]

Canadian tenor John Tessier was the Laertes. Even though the part is comparatively small, the music for him is elegantly written in both his appearances, which Tessier’s attractive leggiero voice did proper justice. In this version of the opera (the one in which Hamlet dies), Laertes provides the mortal blow (by means of a pistol, which Hamlet wrests from him to assassinate Claudius to end the opera).

[Below: Laertes (John Tessier, right) confronts Hamlet (Michael Chioldi); edited image, based on a Karin Cooper photograph, courtesy of the Washington National Opera.]

The Claudius was played by the great Samuel Ramey, whose sonorous voice is still in evidence, although regrettably no longer demonstrating the controlled legato that is essential to this era of French singing.

[Below: Gertrude (Elizabeth Bishop) places flowers on Ophelie’s coffin as Claudius (Samuel Ramey) looks on; edited image, based on a Karin Cooper photograph, courtesy of the Washington National Opera.]

Baritone Lee An was a distinguished Horatio. The remaining cast members were dominated by Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists, many of whom I had noted for their WNO performances of Donizetti’s “Lucrezia Borgia” in 2008.

Jose Ortega, a current Young Artist, was the Marcellus. Oleksandr Pushniak was the Polonius. The Domingo-Cafritz gravediggers, baritone Alexsey Bogdanov and tenor Jesus Daniel Hernandez, deserve special praise for their rousing performances.

[Below: Having slain Claudius (Samuel Ramey, on floor, front left), the mortally wounded Hamlet (Michael Chioldi) is exultant; edited image, based on a Karin Cooper photograph, courtesy of the Washington National Opera.]

Obviously, were my schedule to permit it, I would find it interesting to attend several of the remaining performances of “Hamlet” at WNO, and would personally be interested in seeing complete performances of the role of Ophelie by BOTH Futral and Oeste. I recommend the opera and this production, regardless of  whom is announced for a given performance.

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