Spoiler alert: People die in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. A lot of them — including the Danish prince of the title, his wife, Ophelia, and various enemies and friends.
Anyone who has done more than a cursory high school literature-required read of the play — or seen any of the many film versions — knows how they are killed off and when, and that it all started because of a death.
So if you think there’s nothing new about yet another version of a story in which the outcome is as predictable as the ending of Titanic, think again.
When the Fort Worth Opera opens the regional premiere of Ambroise Thomas’ 1868 opera Hamlet on Saturday at Bass Hall — the third production of the 2015 Fort Worth Opera Festival — you might be surprised at the ending.
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Make no mistake, there’s still death. After all, this is opera, an art form in which some works can drag out a death scene for an entire, and very long, act.
“Who is alive at the end of the show, and who isn’t … how people remain and how they go out,” says soprano Talise Trevigne, who plays Ophelia in the Fort Worth production, “that might surprise you.”
This is partly because French composer Thomas originally wrote Hamlet to premiere in Paris, and because there was concern about portraying the murder of a monarch in France, considering the country’s history with murdered monarchs, the ending was … happy. Or, happier.
But when the opera opened at London’s Covent Garden in 1870, Thomas and his librettists Michel Carre and Jules Barbier knew that Britons would know their Shakespeare, and an alternate ending — something closer to the play — was written.
That’s the version commonly seen, especially in English-speaking countries, and the one that Fort Worth Opera is using. Except that director Thaddeus Strassberger, arguably the world’s biggest champion of this opera — this is his fourth American production in 10 years, and he has more slated — has a few tricks up his sleeve.
His sequence of events is slightly different from Thomas’, which were already different from Shakespeare’s.
That’s the brilliance of Shakespeare’s original. There’s a reason Hamlet is the most studied and debated of all literature’s tragically flawed characters.
“Every time I direct anything, I start brand new because you want to get to the different layers,” Strassberger says. “Even though it’s a Shakespearean tragedy that doesn’t have an immediate source to it, it’s structured like a Greek tragedy; it’s a story that doesn’t really have a resolution to it. It’s like any great family drama — how can you bring closure to it when nothing is black or white and everything is gray? How do you solve problems with no answers to them?”
Shakespeare is rightfully known as the world’s greatest writer, and there’s a reason so many of his plays are produced frequently and have been adapted into other art forms. Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo & Juliet is up there with Swan Lake and The Nutcracker in popularity; and Verdi’s Otello, Macbeth and Falstaff usually appear in the top 50 of the world’s most-produced operas.
Many other of Shakespeare’s plays and poems have made it to the opera stage, but aside from the aforementioned Verdi works, you don’t see many of them on American stages. Thomas’ Hamlet came just a few years after Italian composer Franco Faccio’s version, Amleto, but neither is in the standard repertoire.
“It was a big hit in its time,” says Wes Mason, who sings Hamlet in the Fort Worth Opera production. “It’s very reminiscent of the German romantic school and it’s also the type of lyricism of French grand opera, and it balances from art song-type lyrics, through big, heroic Wagnerian moments.
“But for whatever reason, Thomas didn’t seem to last through history’s judgment,” he adds. “Maybe it’s the two different endings, or the demand of the title role. It’s actually not a difficult baritone role, but it’s not a usual set of skills you get with most dramatic or Cavalier baritones. It’s a hard show to cast.”
Not to mention, these are famous roles with infinite potential for unlocking the dramatic puzzle pieces.
“All sopranos dream of playing the big mad scenes, and so Ophelia was one I had wanted to play,” says Trevigne, who has played opera’s best-known mad soprano, Lucia di Lammermoor, several times.
Ophelia’s mad scene, in fact, is one of the moments that Thomas expanded from the original play.
“It’s actually an entire scene, it’s about 12 minutes long,” Trevigne says. “I always love playing the breakdown of the character. It’s the culmination of how she ended up where she is. In the play, we’re dropped into ‘this is her plight,’ and through this opera and this character there is a progression to the mad scene. It’s no holds barred.”
Without giving too much away, other differences from the play include a much smaller role for Polonius; the addition of Gertrude to a scene that’s only Hamlet and Ophelia in the play (“Get thee to a nunnery”); the complete dropping of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern — although they are referenced as assassins by another character; and a reduction in lines, but not stage time, for Hamlet’s iconic “To be or not to be” soliloquy.
“‘To be or not to be’ is a little later in the show, so it’s down to its bare meaning,” says Mason, who incidentally has played another well-known theater role on the opera stage this year, Stanley Kowalski in Andre Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire. “It’s a two-page arietta, but it’s slow and written so minimally it really captures the essence of his dilemma.”
Change in setting
Strassberger’s concept, which he uses in all his Hamlet productions, is that Denmark is behind the Soviet Iron Curtain, and while he doesn’t give it a definite time period, some of the props and costumes recall the 1940s and 1950s.
“It’s an emotional landscape we’ve created of an imaginary Denmark,” he says. “But in the past year I’ve had the chance to work in Russia, close to Siberia, and I think some of the ideas in my Hamlet are not off the mark.”
For Mason and Trevigne, these roles offer a chance for deep acting and character exploration, which has not always been the case in an art form in which the emphasis is on vocal ability. Becoming stronger actors is an emerging trend that’s been happening in opera training.
“Wes and I have become great friends over the past year, and I think one thing we share is that we consider ourselves singing actors, not just singers,” says Trevigne. “We enjoy exploring that with each other. It’s never staid or set, and we’re constantly evolving.”
And because the very mention of Hamlet conjures an emotional labyrinth for not only the performers, but the audience, it takes a director who enjoys plumbing those depths. That’s why Strassberger considers the opera an unsung masterpiece of the genre.
That’s a credit to Thomas, but also to Willy Shakes.
“I think it requires really intense directing and musical directing to make really poetic sense of the lines,” he says. “One reason I think Puccini works and is so popular is because it’s so perfectly wrought that there’s not as much room for ‘what does this line mean?’ But because it has Shakespeare in its roots, you really have to analyze everything in Hamlet.”
▪ 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. May 10
▪ Bass Hall, Fort Worth
▪ 817-731-0726; www.fwopera.org
Five top takes on ‘Hamlet’
References to Shakespeare’s greatest play are prevalent throughout pop culture, from film to TV to pop music to video games. And of course everyone will have seen some of the great film performances, which include Laurence Olivier (1948), Grigori Kozintsev (1964), Kenneth Branagh (1996) and even Ethan Hawke (I’m a fan of Michael Almereyda’s 2000 modern-set film version). Not surprisingly, it’s popular across performing art forms, too. Here are five stage and pop culture takes on Hamlet worth checking out:
1. Sons of Anarchy: The Prince of Denmark has been referenced in not-so-subtle ways on TV, from Star Trek to The Simpsons. But the entire plot of this recently ended FX series was inspired by Hamlet, but set in California. Just call it “Hamlet on Bikes.”
2. The Lion King: Probably the most famous film not called Hamlet that’s directly inspired by Hamlet; watch it again (or see the terrific-looking musical version) and look for all the parallels.
3. Hamlet ESP: Paul Baker, the late founding artistic director of the Dallas Theater Center, was known for his risks, including this staging in which three actors played three sides (id, ego, superego) of the character.
4. Hamlet, the ballet: Choreographer Stephen Mills of Ballet Austin debuted his ballet of Hamlet in 2000, with music by Philip Glass. I would love to see this on local stages.
5. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead: Naturally, other playwrights have been inspired by the work and have created new plays using characters and themes from the original. These include Lee Blessing’s Fortinbras and Caridad Svich’s Twelve Ophelias. But Tom Stoppard’s brilliant farce, which follows what happens with the assassins as the play Hamlet is happening elsewhere, is tops.
— Mark Lowry