Fort Worth — One way that a relatively obscure opera gets a revival is for a singer with clout to identify a juicy role. Such was the case with Umberto Giordano’s creaky Italian verismo opera Fedora. It has a wonderful role for a soprano, but its slightly dated music put it on the shelf for much of the 20th century. In 1993, soprano Mirella Freni hauled it out at La Scala with tenor Plácido Domingo and it was back on the roster.
The same should happen with Ambroise Thomas’ 1868 five-act setting of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, which is a major success for the Fort Worth Opera. It has vanished and reappeared, depending on the influence of star baritones, such as Thomas Hampson and most recently Simon Keenlyside at the Met in 2010.
The Fort Worth Opera knew the perfect baritone. Wes Mason created a sensation as the gay Cuban activist Reinaldo Arenas in their 2010 world premiere production of Before Night Falls by Jorge Martín. Ophelia is another juicy role and soprano Talise Trevigne had scored a major triumph that same season as the cabin boy in The Dallas Opera’s premiere of Moby-Dick by Jake Heggie.
While Thomas’ Hamlet is unfamiliar to local audiences, and might be a hard sell, these two singing actors are very well known and their fan base filled Bass Hall for the opening on Saturday evening. The two singers were marvelous, but the entire production exceeded expectations on all fronts and tickets should be scarce for the repeat performance on Sunday.
But two star singers alone cannot carry the show. In the hands of director Thaddeus Strassberger (his fourth time with this opera), Thomas’ slightly dated very French opera becomes Shakespeare’s taut and edge-of-your-seat drama even before the curtain goes up. The audience is involved in the opera from the moment they enter the lobby.
Strassberger moves the action out of Denmark and into a nonspecific military dictatorship somewhere in the vicinity of the early- to mid-20th century. Ragtag beggars approach patrons in the lobby, which also contains the body of the King, Hamlet’s father, recently deceased under suspicious circumstances. The royal body lies in state surrounded by sneering, jackbooted and heavily armed guards who look at viewers warily. Simmering unrest is about to boil over. Thus, Strassberger sets up the crux of the play as a military coup.
In short: Hamlet suspects that the newly crowned King, Claudius, murdered his father for the throne. Worse, Claudius is his uncle so that means he killed his own brother and married Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude. The military presence adds an ominous and deadly undercurrent to the unwinding of Hamlet’s ultimately destructive revenge.
Librettists Michel Carré and Jules Barbier did a remarkable job of paring Shakespeare’s drama down to operatic size. Many familiar characters are gone. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern may still be dead, but they are elsewhere and not in this version (neither is Yorick's skull). Characters other than Hamlet and Ophelia are either eliminated or minimized. The play had to be drastically cut; otherwise, a setting of the full text would take days to sing.
The Fort Worth Opera makes further cuts, trimming the original opera down to about three hours and combining the five acts into two halves with one intermission. Nothing important, or even noticeable, has been omitted from the opera.
The original opera has a happy ending, in which Hamlet is crowned king. Thomas wrote another version closer to the original with Hamlet dead for Covent Garden when the opera opened in London in 1870 and this is what the FWO is using, with some modifications.
There are some misfires. The spectacle that Hamlet makes of himself in his falling-down-drunk scene is over-the-top. Gertrude calms her violent husband with oral sex. The gunshots are way too loud as are the amplified birds, whose twittering moves into Hitchcock territory. But those are small nitpicks.
Mason is remarkable as Hamlet. His acting chops come not just from opera, but from his theater training and work in musical theater. Handsome, buff and brooding, he spends much of the opera in a tight T-shirt. His acting is always believable. He sings the role with a mid-sized but rich baritone voice that is remarkably even from top to bottom. He wisely never pushes it beyond its capabilities, which is very tempting to do, adding intensity rather than vocal heft to create the bigger moments.
Trevigne is wonderful as the doomed Ophelia. She plays the part as very young and childish, as would be normal for a royal bride for a prince. She can’t understand why Hamlet is suddenly so cold. Her little private picnic is pathetically sad and her hoop skirt at the party is wonderfully inappropriate. Vocally, she unleashes fireworks worthy of the great coloratura soprani who have sung the role (or more likely, the mad scene extracted).
The roles of Gertrude and Claudius, while still critical, are reduced in this version. Robynne Redmon has a stentorian mezzo-soprano voice and her Gertrude is a stately figure who tries to calm down all of the exploding interactions around her. But in her scene with Hamlet, her control slips and she lets it all out. Their confrontation is one of the dramatic high points of the production.
Kim Joesphson’s Claudius epitomizes the old saying “be careful what you wish for.” The crown sits uneasily on his head and he covers his fears and inadequacy with pretentious harangues. He is also a bit of a letch. In some ways, his portrayal brings Herod in Richard Strauss’ Salome to mind.
Other characters are reduced to minimal participation. Stephen Clark is the Ghost, Dane Suarez plays Marcellus, Nate Mattingly is Horatio and Wesley Gentle plays Polonius. The scene with the two gravediggers remains in Thomas’ opera to offer some relief from all the intrigues of the dysfunctional court. Matt Moeller and Brian Wallin do a fine job in the roles.
The chorus has a lot to do, starting with their appearances in the lobby before the opera begins. Dressed in rags, they are almost omnipresent and take an active part in the action. Chorus master Stephen Dubberly did his usual terrific job of preparation.
Joe Illick is at his best conducting this score. He never sentimentalizes the music and keeps it moving without ever pushing the tempi. Balance was excellent on Saturday, as he offered support to the singers without covering them—although on a few occasions he came close to that line. The Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra sounded terrific.
It s hard to make generalized statements about this production versus others since this is the first time many of us have seen Thomas’ staged. A few arias are heard in auditions and in recitals, but familiarity with most of the music comes from listening to a recording somewhere in the distant past.
That said, this is an amazing production and makes one curious why this opera isn’t in the repertoire. You also now wonder how the Met did it a few seasons ago. While much of the music is quite beautiful and dramatic, that is not what is remembered. In this case, it is the work of a brilliant stage director and fine singing actors that completely transforms a dated 19th century opera into a seething and gritty drama that is right out of the headlines or, more likely, a movie on Showtime Extreme.