Reviewed by Judy Richter
The San Francisco Opera is staging Ambroise Thomas' Hamlet in the Orpheum Theatre, its other home away from home while the War Memorial Opera House is undergoing renovations and a seismic upgrade. The Orpheum, an ornate old movie house mostly used for touring Broadway musicals, offers a traditional proscenium stage and good, though not great, acoustics for more intimate works in the Opera's 1996-97 season. Larger-scale works are being offered in the nearby Bill Graham Civic Auditorium.
Even though Hamlet is more than 100 years old, this is the first time the SF Opera has staged it, probably for good reason. It's hardly a work of musical genius on the order of Verdi or Wagner. However, it does have some compelling scenes and music. With Colin Graham's staging and Yves Abel's conducting, those strengths emerge in this production.
What can be difficult to deal with, though, is the libretto by Michel Carré and Jules Barbier. While they follow the general outline of Shakespeare's plot, they eliminate several characters such as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and make others, most notably Polonius, mere witnesses to most of the action. The relationship between Hamlet and Ophélie is more clearly delineated as romantic, giving the occasion for a lovely love duet in Act 1, Scene 1, but losing some of the ambiguity of Shakespeare's original. Because the libretto strays so far from the play, it's probably best just to forget about the Bard and take this story on its own terms, which are workable as music theater.
Sung in French with English supertitles, this production benefits from the presence of two of the opera world's finest young American singers, baritone Thomas Hampson in the title role and soprano Ruth Ann Swenson as Ophélie.
Hampson, who has recorded the role, brings a heroic stature and powerful voice to the melancholy Dane. He also has good chemistry with Swenson, whose mad scene in Act 4 (this production is divided into two parts with one intermission) elicited prolonged applause and cheers on opening night, Sept. 12. Swenson is an accomplished coloratura with strong high notes, excellent control and the ability to sustain a lovely pianissimo.
Hamlet's mother, Gertrude, is sung by Canadian mezzo-soprano Judith Forst. This libretto makes Gertrude's complicity in the murder of Hamlet's father far more explicit than Shakespeare's text. It also gives her more time with Ophélie, lending a mother-daughter feeling to their relationship. While Forst is an excellent actress who skillfully portrays Gertrude's mixed emotions of guilt along with love for her son and concern for Ophélie, her singing has lost some of its finesse. Register breaks are apparent rather than seamless.
Claudius, who killed Hamlet's father and married his mother shortly thereafter, is portrayed by English bass Robert Lloyd, who had an unpleasant nasal quality with a wide vibrato in his early scenes but who did better in his prayer scene when Claudius seeks his brother's forgiveness. Lloyd's low notes are secure, but they lack the strength and resonance that are so admirable in American bass Kevin Langan's portrayal of the Ghost of Hamlet's father.
Laërte, Ophélie's brother, is lyrically sung by Canadian tenor Benoît Boutet. (Daniel Hendrick is scheduled Sept. 14, 19 and 29.) Other noteworthy contributions come from American baritone John Autry as Horatio, Australian tenor Stuart Skelton as Marcellus, Canadian bass-baritone John Relyea as Polonius, Belgrade bass-baritone Bojan Knezevic as the First Gravedigger and American tenor Daniel Harper as the Second Gravedigger.
Set designer Gerard Howland has created a setting with one ramp ascending diagonally across the stage from right to left, and another intersecting and ascending to the right with a stairway between them on the right. Tall wood panels forming the back wall sometimes are lowered to varying degrees for dramatic effect, especially when the Ghost of Hamlet's father first appears.
Costumes by Robert Perdziola feature Empire-style dresses for the women, not the most flattering style for some of them. Peter Kaczorowski's lighting is generally effective except in the garden scene when Hamlet and Ophélie pledge their love. The dappled lighting, intended to represent trees, often casts shadows on their faces, especially hers.
Ian Robertson's Opera Chorus again makes a significant contribution, as does the excellent Opera Orchestra under Abel's baton. Despite all the talent on display in this production, though, it still can't overcome the fact that Thomas' Hamlet is not among the world's great operas.
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