To Be or Not To Be –
C’est un mystère …
West Edge Opera presents a sleeker and more compact version of the 19th-century grand opera, Hamlet, in their Festival 2017. Premiered in Paris in 1868, Ambroise Thomas’ version of the Shakespearean classic was five acts long, including a 20-minute ballet, and was adapted by seasoned librettists Michel Carré and Jules Barbier from a theatrical adaptation by Alexander Dumas, père, he of The Three Musketeers.
Understandably, the French version varied significantly from the original (and bloodier) version. In an event of Gallic symmetry the opera constellates two love relationships – Gertrude and Claudius, Hamlet and Ophelia – with additional tensions between Hamlet and his mother. More central than any of the characters is Ophélie, who in true Romantic style has an extended mad scene ending in death by drowning. Her mad scene is also the opera’s longest solo, traveling through recitative, waltz, ballade and finale, and elaborately decorated with leaps, trills, runs and dazzling coloratura. All of which soprano Emma McNairy shimmied through with ease and aplomb. The many-talented McNairy is a West Edge Opera favorite, leading their appealing and edgy productions of Berg’s Lulu (2015) and Ades’ Powder Her Face (2016).
The most compelling singer in a field of compelling singers was baritone Edward Nelson, who sang Hamlet. The part, which is set high in the baritone register (it was originally meant to be a tenor role), suits his beautiful voice perfectly and he delivers the French text with clarity and affection. His voice drew in the listener’s attention every time he sang, informing each note with resonant focus. Nelson is a graduate of the Merola Opera Program and an SF Opera Adler Fellow.
Mezzo Susan Mentzer sang Gertrude and her voice is large and full of color, gorgeous, really. Philip Skinner, another regular singer for West Edge and many of the smaller, more adventurous opera companies in the Bay Area, sang Claudius. He had some intonation problems at the beginning of the performance, but returned quickly to his reliable and solid singing. Tenor Daniel Curran gave a worthy performance as Laërte, Ophélie’s brother, who entrusts his sister to Prince Hamlet’s care only to find her dead when he returns from Norway.
The singers’ voices were enhanced by the excellent supporting acoustics of West Edge Opera’s current venue, at the Pacific Pipe Company in West Oakland.
The orchestra aided with a terrific orchestral reduction by Music Director and Conductor Jonathan Khuner. The 25-member orchestra sounded rich and full, with two horns, harp and English horn and bassoon expanding the chamber orchestra’s sound.
The production was less strong. Conceptually, it had many virtues but their actual realization often fell short. Stage director Aria Umezawa fell into the trap of presenting sex-spiced scenes (wow!) at the beginning of the production – having the King undress and be stabbed in his bath, a towel over his face, while being caressed by Gertrude, a scene that was soon followed by Hamlet and a coyly seductive Ophélie rolling around undressing each other while throwing high notes into the stratosphere. Fortunately, the opera offered no other opportunities for attempts at outré stage sex.
Umezawa’s idea of Ophélie’s dress becoming the field of water in which she drowns had a poetic and dream-like quality, especially with the rising and falling of drowning faces under the surface of the material. The scene was marred by the entrances and exits by various players and a winding in and out of the chorus, which detracted from McNairy’s virtuosic singing and her illuminating stage presence.
Likewise the idea behind Jean-François’ sets was effective and dramatic, presenting large irregularly framed screens that fit into the surrounding venue’s physical presence, and provided opportunities for the shadow presence of the dead king and the enactment of the play within the play. Unfortunately, no one’s shadow quite fit into the screens and shadow play was clumsy in its staging.
Even so, this was a musically gratifying work. And there’s something about the rough-and-ready productions of West Edge Opera that always engages attention, is unfailingly interesting and, finally, is so deserving of support. The Bay Area is blessed to have this plucky and ambitious company.
– Jaime Robles
Photo: Edward Nelson as Hamlet is haunted by his father’s shadowy ghost.