FORT WORTH Shakespeare aficionados may find composer Ambroise Thomas’ take on Hamlet infuriating, but the Fort Worth Opera’s lively production may go some way toward softening their wrath.
The opera company’s final mainstage production of the season, Hamlet opened in Bass Hall on Saturday night and will be repeated on May 10.
Those arriving for Saturday’s performance were in for a mild shock — or at least puzzlement. What were those soldiers with modern weaponry and stern faces doing in the lobby of Bass Hall? What about those begging peasants, quickly hustled off by the soldiers? Above all, what’s that well dressed corpse in a glass casket doing in the lobby of our opera house? It looked like a real corpse. Spooky.
It turns out that the show had already started. The corpse was Hamlet’s father, recently toppled in a coup d’état led by Hamlet’s uncle.
Apparently the father was not a well-liked tyrant. Inside the auditorium a celebration was underway, with singing, cheering chorister-peasants marching down the aisles and a festive air onstage. The toppling of a huge statue was more than a little reminiscent of the downfall of Saddam Hussein.
This was a Hamlet set in Stalinist times, perhaps in one of the Soviet satellite nations.
Credit for this approach goes, I suppose, to director and scenic designer Thaddeus Strassberger and costume designer Mary Traylor.
I thought this idea of starting the opera early, in the lobby and down the aisles was a clever gimmick, although neither Shakespeare nor Thomas had any such idea in mind. It’s especially forgivable considering what Thomas had already done to Shakespeare in writing the work.
The composer and his librettists (Michel Carré and Jules Barbier) kept some of the elements of Shakespeare’s play but dropped others, shifted time and emphases, and elevated the importance of at least one character.
“To be or not to be” and “Get thee to a nunnery” are still there (transposed to French, of course), but “Alas, poor Yorick!” isn’t. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead — actually, in this operatic version they never existed.
Where Hamlet the opera really triumphs is in Thomas’ music, which is consistently pleasant, especially in the fine performances of the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra under Joe Illick’s leadership (special kudos to principal clarinetist Ana Victoria Luperi) and the singing and acting of key figures.
Baritone Wes Mason as Hamlet was properly a dominant figure both musically and dramatically. Highly impressive was the Ophelia of soprano Talise Trevigne, who gets a whole act for her mad scene and subsequent demise.
Baritone Kim Josephson and mezzo-soprano Robynne Redmon were effective as Claudius and Gertrude, though they were the victims of Strassberger’s call for a sex scene, which drew laughter from the audience.
Kevin Newell (Laertes), Dane Suarez (Marcellus), Nate Mattingly (Horatio), Stephen Clark (the ghost of Hamlet’s father) and Wesley Gentle (Polonius) filled out a generally able cast.
One complaint: Hamlet is in five acts, and the Fort Worth Opera breaks it up with only one relatively short intermission. Oh for the good old days, when an evening of opera was not a physical ordeal.
Fort Worth Opera Festival