The end of last Wednesday's opening-night performance of Opera Theatre of St. Louis' production of Hamlet was cheered with the season's longest, loudest and most heartfelt standing ovation. Shockingly, the show deserved it.
The shock came because composer Ambroise Thomas' Hamlet has a reputation as a dog of an opera. Previous productions have suffered from all of the conventions of mid-nineteenth-century French opera. For example, every opera -- so the French said -- had to have a ballet in it. So in the original production, amid the madness, murder, suicide, adultery and ectoplasmic visitations, Ham, Ophelia, Claudius and the Elsinore gang were interrupted by a gaggle of ballerinas. Then there was the need for a happy ending. A French opera's gotta have a happy ending. In the original production of Thomas' Hamlet, he lives, kills King Claudius and is crowned king as the chorus sings, "Vive le roi" ("Long live the king."). All of this was compounded by its translation into French. English and French scan so differently that the poetry in Shakespeare's language was lost.
OTSL brought in seasoned opera veterans to remake Thomas' original for this summer's version. They hired Colin Graham, who first worked for OTSL back in 1978, to create a new English libretto and direct the show. They signed Raymond Leppard, an old pro with hundreds of recordings, including many of opera and chamber music, under his belt, to tailor the score and conduct. And they contracted four top-notch singers, who are also superb actors, to play the primary roles.
Graham had a clear vision of how to stage Hamlet at the Loretto-Hilton Center. He started by returning to Shakespeare's original and lifting as much of the libretto as possible straight from the play. It's Elizabethan poetry, after all. It sings on the page, and Graham's edition flows comfortably over Thomas' score. The language fits the music so well that it's sung in almost natural speech patterns, allowing the singer/actors to take full advantage of the intimacy of this fabulous theater. They chuck the big dramatic gestures associated with opera acting and replace them with subtlety that would be lost on the gigantic stages of the huge theaters normally associated with opera.
Graham has also solved the "happy ending" problem neatly. It turns out that during the opera's original Paris run, Thomas was hired to bring his show to Covent Garden in England. Covent Garden's management was appalled at the idea of messing with Shakespeare's ending and ordered Thomas to retool the opera to more closely follow the Bard's story. Graham has revived this later version, and although the Shakespearean body count of eight is reduced to an almost paltry four, there's enough dueling and stabbing in the last act to satisfy any groundling's bloodlust. More important -- and true to the classic Hamlet-- all the principals are dead by the final curtain.
Thomas was one of the first composers to thoroughly integrate the technique of creating a theme for each major character, then recasting the themes to foreshadow and underscore dramatic developments. Leppard's tightly reined and precise conducting makes the most of this element. During the instrumental passages and through the longer arias, he highlights the Romantic leanings of this beautiful score. In most performances (OK, in the two recorded performances I could find) of this opera, much of the dialogue is recited over rhythmic comping from the orchestra. (In opera this is called "recitative"). Leppard's richly harmonic use of the underscore in those passages frees the actors to sing softly, or harshly, or conversationally, as the situation requires, rather than recite. The result is a moving and engaging evocation of the drama that is sung from curtain to curtain.
And what singing it is. Nathan Gunn, who unveiled his wonderful voice as Figaro in OTSL's Barber of Seville back in 1996, is a magnificent singing Hamlet. He plays the part with humanity and nuance. In his hands, Hamlet is a man torn and in trouble but very much a man. Long mad scenes such as the one Lauren Skuce plays as Ophelia are usually invitations to histrionics. But Skuce finesses all pitfalls as she slightly underplays both her mad scene and the onstage drowning that ensues. Dorothy Byrne, as Gertrude, and Mark McCrory, as Claudius, are equally skilled actors who sing with elegant refinement.
By the time you read this, there will only be a performance or two of Hamlet left. If you love theater or opera, treat yourself to one.