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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Opera Review: Frozen Ghost

Hamlet at the Washington National Opera.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Act III of Hamlet as it appeared in the Kansas City production.
The Washington National Opera closed out its 2010 season with a brilliant staging of Hamlet, the French adaptation of Shakespeare's tragedy by composer Ambroise Thomas. Recent years have led to a rediscovery of this opera, with its tour de force aria for Ophélie and powerful, baritone title role.

Thaddeus Strassberger's production (updated from its first appearance at the Kansas City Opera) sets the play behind the Iron Curtain, in a chilly, snow-swept Denmark crushed by the Communist boot. King Hamlet's funeral opens the opera, with rallying proletarians tearing down the royal statue amidst much flag-waving. (The parallel to Baghdad, circa 2003 is an easy one.) The choristers sang from the middle of the house in a rally of support for Claudius and his new administration. There are raised-fist Fascist salutes, onstage violence by police against protestors, and a bitter, detached Hamlet, moodily smoking a cigarette, hiding behind a pair of Ray-Bans.

Michael Chioldi is a forceful presence as Hamlet. He walks the razor's edge of madness for the entire evening, singing with a firm, round tone and meeting all of the role's considerable physical and vocal requrements. His best scene is in the second act, where he dominates the staging of the play-within-a-play, narrating The Murder of Gonzago like a '40s crooner. His "Être ou ne pas être" was completely introverted and thoughtfully sung. Setting this famous scene (and the following confrontation with Gertrude, the Ghost, and Polonius) in the mausoleum that held his father's corpse in a glass coffin was a stroke of dramatic genius.

Ambrois Thomas' opera reimagines Ophélie as a dreamy, floating character, detached from all the horror around her and in love with Hamlet. In Act III, Hamlet's rejection of her is the hard slap that unhinges the character completely, leading to the specatular death scene and a dizzying display of soprano technique. Elizabeth Futral, (a replacement for Diana Damrau, who cancelled) soared, floating vocally (and bodily) above the stage. This lengthy death scene (it takes up the entire fourth act) is what has brought Hamlet back to the repertory, and a performance like this one justifies that return.

The Ghost (John Marcus Bindel) appears in full military dress uniform, with his ear bleeding from Claudius' toxin. His presence (including an unexpected appearance in Act II) always made the audience jump. Gertrude (sung by the forceful, if not always sweet Elizabeth Bishop) sports a series of truly hideous dresses, making her Denmark's answer to Imelda Marcos.

Samuel Ramey is in the twilight of his career. In Claudius, this American singer has created one last, great portrayal as the corrupt King whose murder of his brother sets the drama in motion.

Despite the presence of an audible wobble, his low notes were intact, as was the dramatic use of his instrument. Add great physical acting chops and a haunted expression, and this character became the heart of this tortured drama. A great Claudius must be more than a villain--he is as twisted and complex as the eponymous hero, beset by guilt and the weight of his stolen crown.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats