Washington National Opera: Hamlet

Yes, that's a bag of candy specially branded with "WNO" on each M&M, which the Washington National Opera placed on the armrest of each renewing subscriber's seat for opening night tonight (Wednesday) of Hamlet, the final run of the season.  (It was a nice gesture, though I'm still not happy that they shortened next season and ditched the American Ring cycle right at the end.)  I had thought Ambroise Thomas to be a one-hit wonder, but was surprised to see in the Playbill several dozen other works in his opus, mostly comic operas.  All the same, he hails from an era and environ so solidly classical that I had not expected any rouse from this unfamiliar (to me) opera.  The scenarist's premise, though, was a good start; in double-duty as Director and Set Designer, Thaddeus Strassberger staged the work in post-World War II Denmark, fudging that reality into something rather Commie and totalitarian as an interpretive framework.  So, the new king got fist-pump salutes into the air from his minions, red flags flew, soldiers flanked every scene with aimed rifles, etc.  From there, the music did what we expect mid-19th Century music to do:  It proceeded.  And the staging told the story with competence, and a few good laughs.  (Yes, that is the ghost of King Hamlet in a dog costume, and yes, that is him raising his doggie leg as he pisses onto the column that holds the bust of the King.)  But Thomas's opera takes a magical turn from all that exposition in the final two (of five) acts.  In Act IV, he gives Ophelia's madness scene a grueling coloratura, with harmonies and tone colors that anticipate the 20th Century.  And after she hurls herself into the river to be drowned, there is a surprising, discrete interlude that sounds especially ethereal.  (In this modernist staging, we are given Ophelia suspended by wires after her death, in a moment of Heavenly ascension, and she looks something like a very bottom-heavy Juan Muñoz sculpture, or that ballooned-up kid in Willy Wonka.  Amazingly, this executes without eliciting widespread giggles from the audience.)  The nearly impressionist-sounding music is led by harp, a masterful performance by the always great Susan Robinson.  Act V concludes the opera with similarly lush musical passages and rich dramatic tension.

Surely the highlight of the evening was Elizabeth Futral's virtuosic coloratura as Ophelia, and the audience's roars certainly agreed.  Hamlet has six more performances in its run through June 4.  As usual, this blog always highlights associated ticket deals, and the current one is for half-priced tickets for most of the run; click here for TICKETPLACE DC.

Lastly, in terms of recommending a recording of the work, there is an obvious choice on EMI, not only because the singing cast includes Samuel Ramey who also sings in this WNO production, but also because it features the great Thomas Hampson in the title role.  Dating from 2001, this is, by all accounts, the definitive recording.