Conductor: Placido Domingo
Director: Thaddeus Strassberger
Hamlet: Liam Bonner
Ophelia: Elizabeth Futral
Claudius: Samuel Ramey
Gertrude: Elizabeth Bishop
After the Met's minimalist but appealing production of Ambroise Thomas' "Hamlet", I was quite curious to see how the Washington National Opera's allegedly more elaborate version would compare. One thing the two houses had in common though was a noted difficulty in pinning down their Ophelia: Marlis Petersen replaced Natalie Dessay at the last minute in New York, and a pregnant Diana Damrau had to let Elizabeth Futral take on the part in Washington. As for the title role, after Carlos Alvarez cancelled, it is now being shared by veteran Michael Chioldi and brand new comer Liam Bonner, who was making his very debut with the NSO on Monday, the same evening my friend Jennifer and I were there. But that's a mere detail. "Hamlet" the opera revolves around "Ophélie" and her 20-minute mad scene, especially designed, as it was the custom in those days, for the soprano du jour, and the rest of the action follows more or less distantly Shakespeare's original play. But good drama and Romantic music are often a recipe for success, and that was enough of a reason to go out to the Kennedy Center on a beautiful Monday night.
Classics are supposed to be timeless, so why not indeed place this one in a 1950s fascist country, like, somewhere in Eastern Europe? All things considered, it did not ruin it, but it did not really bring anything to it either, except for some small moments of confusion: was Hamlet's father really a good king or a borderline dictator? Was Polonius really in on the royal murder? And how can a king rule a fascist country anyway? Sometimes dealing with such a well-known plot can be as much a blessing as a curse because one cannot distance itself enough to look at it with fresh eyes and stop comparing. But as long as everything makes more or less sense (this is opera, after all, so let's not nit-pick too much) why not go for the ride?
We were all the more willing as the story got tremendous help from the last-minute but nevertheless well-prepared singers. A recent graduate of the Domingo-Crafitz Young Artist Program, baritone Liam Bonner easily projected the youth and insecurity of the young prince, but he was still very green in his singing and acting for such an intense and complex part. Granted, the opera's character is less of a long-windedly neurotic than the theater one, but still... Next to the Met's mesmerizing Simon Keenlyside, to whom it is of course unfair to compare him, Liam Bonner is definitely a light-weight. But he is on the right track though, and we were more than happy to support his promising first professional steps.
On the other hand, Elizabeth Futral has been around for a while, particularly in La Traviata, in which she steadily charms audiences around the world, and her Ophelia proved that she could pull off quite a show even on short notice. She quickly asserted her presence, which is considerably more important than in the play, stayed at the top of her game and eventually delivered a riveting mad scene. Even if the iconic passage was bizarrely, if somewhat effectively, cut in two by her actual diving backwards, which sparked off a frantic ovation, it eventually kind of came all together in her visually startling last moments as she is serenely floating under the multi-colored waters, having become the nymph she was so ethereally singing about earlier.Although the opera focuses mostly on the love story between Hamlet and Ophelia, the other characters were also there and dutifully fulfilled their parts: Samuel Ramey was an appropriately ambitious and authoritarian Claudius, but the most gripping singing of the evening was heard from mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Bishop, who stole every scene she was in as Queen Gertrude. The incredible range and power of her voice made her conflicted queen and mother absolutely memorable.
Ambroise Thomas' pleasantly Romantic score was aptly conducted by Placido Domingo himself. It is not grand music, but it serves the action closely and efficiently, allowing the singers to have their moments in the spotlight without losing track of the overall story. This will never be a timeless masterpiece, but it certainly deserves to be seen more often, although I have to say that twice in the last couple of months is just enough for now, thank you very much.