The complexity and intrigue of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” has inspired endless interpretations and adaptations, from the brilliant to the misguided (not to mention variants, bowdlerizations, and parodies). Just this past weekend Janet McTeer opened on Broadway in the role of The Divine Sarah revising the Bard in Theresa Rebeck’s “Bernhardt/Hamlet.” And back in 1827, when the French theater audience got a taste of “Hamlet,” they were besotted with Ophelia, leading to new altered versions.
Composer Hector Berlioz and novelist Alexandre Dumas were both moved to create fresh work, and ultimately, in 1868, Ambroise Thomas composed the music for an opera of “Hamlet,” with Michel Carré and Jules Barbier writing the Dumas-based libretto. Over the years this opera was alternately rejected and resurrected, subject to the tastes of audiences, critics, and Shakespearean and operatic purists alike.
But Thomas’ opera has survived on its own merits, a recent success being Simon Keenlyside as the Danish prince in the Met’s 2010 production. So our own Opera Ithaca most interestingly chose to open its fifth season last weekend with a 150th anniversary tribute to Thomas’s “Hamlet.’ In four performances at the Cherry Artspace, local opera lovers could experience an infrequently seen work.
As in ancient Greek theater, audiences already know the story, but Thomas further emphasized the four principals via extended duets: the usurping King, Claudius, and his Queen, Gertrude (a co-conspirator), her son Hamlet, and his betrothed, Ophélie. Thomas’s opera had halved Shakespeare’s roles and reduced subplots, but its five acts remained a lengthy affair. Director Zachary James, Opera Ithaca co-founder and former artistic director, trimmed the work radically further, to seven singers, a streamlined plot, and the most gorgeous arias.
Even for audiences familiar with the Cherry space’s versatility, this staging came as a surprise – more than any previous Opera Ithaca production, the space was transformed, magical, moody and highly intimate. Credit James himself for the inspired vision, both set and costumes, ably assisted by Ron Ziomek’s lighting and Dolly Petersen’s hair and makeup.
The playing space was set into one large corner, with two tiers of audience facing the action. Gauzy, shredded greenish-gray drapery covered two walls, evoking not just a palace but an entire world in ruins. Faded, once-elegant furniture, a piano, a chandelier, strewn objects were all washed in an otherworldly bluish-green. (Clear spaces on two walls, however, were perfect fields for the supertitles.)
Into this Havisham-like space arrives Keith Chambers, the accomplished pianist-conductor. Bald and naked except for a pair of dark swim trunks, he enters and exits slowly, almost zombielike. Like all else, his skin has a mottled green hue, which later suits his enacting Hamlet’s father’s ghost. The unearthly ambience clearly signals that this is a dead world, one already failed through sin and corruption.
Thomas’s Denmark is damned, which James presents in a fascinating combination of restraint and excess. This Gertrude has been complicit in her husband’s death, and at one point Hamlet is literally astride and strangling her. It feels like a morality play laced with Grand Guignol – but it works, because of the dramatic beauty inherent in the music.
Garrett Obrycki is riveting as Hamlet, and not only in his powerful, commanding baritone. Lean and sinuous, almost stealthy, he dominates the action even when spying from the sidelines. His self-conscious Hamlet is both attractive and repellent, tender and cruel, his mind not just ruminating but endlessly parrying.
Obrycki’s complex, expressive acting is unmatched here, but everyone’s singing is strong. Holly Flack’s Ophélie presents as too easily naïve followed by a somewhat strained, extended madness, but her coloratura soprano defines the character. There’s an exquisitely affectionate scene she and Hamlet share, and in moments like this, we realize through the musical articulation of feeling why it makes sense to put “Hamlet” to music.
Abridged as the Shakespearean script may be, there’s an emotional equivalency, an exceptionally powerful expression, that comes through the heightened acting and Thomas’ music. We distinctly feel Hamlet’s torture, Gertrude’s shame, Claudius’ despair in a very different way than through words alone.
The minor roles of gravediggers are played by Seamus Buxton and Haley Evanowski; Boris Van Druff is solid as the dutiful and mourning Laërte. As the King, Alexander Hahn is more cerebral than the usual Claudius; his rich bass conveys hesitation and regret, not blustering power.
Mezzo-soprano Leah Heater, in a lush flame-red gown, embodies all Gertrude’s carnality; her splendid voice, presence, and passion completely communicate the transgressions of sovereigns. In this damaged world Hamlet finally takes personal agency, stabs the offending Claudius, and lives, drained, to reign amidst shambles.
Thanks to James’ vision and the quality of professional talent Opera Ithaca brings here – diverse, international performers and competition finalists – this novel production offered a deeply moving experience.