11 Mar 2018

Hamlet abridged and enriched in Amsterdam

French grand opera and small opera companies are an unlikely combination. Yet OPERA2DAY, a company of modest means, is currently touring the Netherlands with Hamlet by Ambroise Thomas.

This production, enhanced with cinematography, is a triumph of the imagination over limited resources. Even the chronic coughing of a rather restless Amsterdam audience could not diminish its visual impact and raw emotion. So how does a small opera outfit successfully adapt a five-act grand opera?

First, by cutting a good chunk of the score. This version is not for purists, although it is for everyone who appreciates take-no-prisoners theatre. Gone are the ballets, marches and spring festivals. With the focus on the dysfunctional royal family and Ophelia, secondary characters like Ophelia’s father Polonius fade into the periphery. Since Thomas diverges at several plot points from Shakespeare, these reductions bring the opera closer to the play. Voice-over fragments from Hamlet’s Shakespearean monologues in French translation upgrade Carré and Barbier’s effective but conventional libretto. There is no chorus. The soloists, supplemented by three highly competent female singers as courtiers, sing the choral parts. This approach passed the acid test of the opera’s most dramatic moment, when, aided by Hernán Schvartzman’s driven conducting, the singers rose to the challenge of the Act 2 finale. The spine-tingling ensemble after Hamlet publicly accuses his stepfather of murdering his father was satisfyingly grand of gesture. Later on, the women’s singing at Ophelia’s funeral was both tonally glowing and incredibly touching. In the same way, the New European Ensemble, a chamber-sized orchestra, played with a keen sense of drama. Schvartzman led them in an unflaggingly expressive and suspenseful performance. Technically they were challenged by the rapidly ascending and descending figures that mark moments of psychological crisis. The exquisite solo intros, however, were of a different caliber altogether. The onstage brass band, who later doubled as pallbearers, also acquitted themselves commendably. Although not always polished, the orchestral playing never lost sight of the emotional heart of the score.

The visual trump card onstage is the projection of filmed sequences both on a backdrop and on a scrim at the front, creating a striking three-dimensional effect. Quivering images in mossy shades reveal Hamlet’s mind’s eye while the elegantly costumed singers act out the plot. Director Serge van Veggel deliberately smudges the line between real events and the prince’s imagination, keeping the viewer continuously engaged. This juxtaposition of reality and fantasy yields unforgettable images, none more so than Ophelia’s harrowing suicide in front of an idealized image of her floating corpse. But all this sophistication of form would mean little without the fine cast of singing actors. In the title role Quirijn de Lang looks like an English Romantic poet, John Keats at Elsinore as it were. His plangent, slightly nasal baritone fits the character and the language. De Lang produces his voice skillfully across all registers and is a gifted, instinctive actor. His Hamlet hurts so intensely and behaves so insufferably that, like his mother, you want to protect him, but you also feel like slapping him, like his stepfather. The signs of vocal tiredness towards the end were a small trade-off for the fierceness of his interpretation.

Soprano Lucie Chartin’s Ophelia starts out with a charming twinkle in her eye, then gradually collapses into the frangible victim of Hamlet’s bullying and abandonment. After taking a few phrases to settle vocally, Chartin sang very naturally, as if she were speaking, which rendered her portrayal intimate and immediate. In her mad scene she dispensed with pretty warbling and mined deep pathos from Ophelia’s folk song. Accurate and tortured, her high-flying cadenzas sliced the air like stiletto knives. The other singers all delivered the goods. Martijn Sanders and Martina Prins were vocally commanding as the royal couple, Sanders an unempathic and stiff Claudius and Prins a regal and soft-hearted Gertrude. Gertrude is written for a mezzo-soprano and Prins, being a dramatic soprano, had easy, ringing high notes as well as a formidable middle range. Jan-Willem Schaafsma’s willowy tenor left a very favorable impression as Laertes, Ophelia’s brother. The quality bass of Yavuz Arman İşleker was on double duty, most memorably as the ghost of Hamlet Senior. Bass-baritone Patrick Pranger and tenor Georgi Sztojanov completed the estimable roster of soloists as Hamlet’s friends Horatio and Marcellus. They also added a touch of gruesome humor as a pair of skull-tossing gravediggers.

This distilled Hamlet, adapted with informed respect and performed with passion, is a gripping music drama. It continues to tour until April. The last two dates are at the company’s home base, the Koninklijke Schouwburg in The Hague. Performances are subtitled in Dutch and English.

Jenny Camilleri

Cast and production information:

Hamlet: Quirijn de Lang; Ophélie: Lucie Chartin; Claudius: Martijn Sanders; Gertrude: Martina Prins; Laërte /Player Queen: Jan Willem Schaafsma; Horatio/First Gravedigger: Patrick Pranger; Marcellus/Second Gravedigger: Georgi Sztojanov; Polonius/Ghost (Voice)/ Player New King: Yavuz Arman İşleker; Ghost (Actor)/ Player Old King: Joop Keesmaat; Courtiers: Judith Pranger, Sonja Volten and Adélaïde Rouyer; Hamlet Voice-Over: Jonathan Rouah. Director: Serge van Veggel; Play Director: Femke Luyckx; Set Design: Herbert Janse; Costume Design: Mirjam Pater; Lighting Design: Uri Rapaport; Film: Margo Onnes; Sound Design: Arne Bock. Conductor: Hernán Schvartzman. New European Ensemble. Seen at the Royal Carré Theatre, Amsterdam, on Saturday, 10th of March, 2018.