As the most famous play in English, "Hamlet" has been performed, adapted, and “improved” countless times since Shakespeare penned it. David Garrick’s version “rescued that noble play from all the rubbish of the fifth act.” Sarah Berhardt played the title character as "manly and resolute, but nonetheless thoughtful ... a trait indicative of great strength and great spiritual power.” And librettists Michel Carré and Jules Barbier employed Alexander Dumas' jettisoning of the supporting cast to bolster the Ophelia role for Ambroise Thomas’s opera version.
Consequently, the Minnesota Opera production which premiered Saturday evening at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts seems at odds with modern audiences’ conceptions of the Bard’s most famous work. Gone are the sentinels on the castle ramparts and Fortinbras warning about the impending invasion from Norway. Hamlet never travels to England; thus, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are non-existent.
Instead, Gertrude and Polonius are co-conspirators with Claudius’ in the death of Hamlet’s father, and Ophelia’s madness stems from Hamlet’s rejection which creates an emotional void she is unable to fill. All these changes successfully met the expectations of 19th century operatic audiences willing to sacrifice drama for vocal balance.
Not as successful are the staging changes contained in this updated version. Cast members cheering Claudius’ accession from the audience invigorates the production, but substituting gun shots for knife fights evokes the shock of today’s gun violence without adding thematic significance. Corpses linger onstage like the aftermath of a banana republic drug shootout to no purpose. Amid a gently falling snow Claudius assumes the throne dressed in the grandeur of a generalissimo yet Gertrude wears a summer frock. The same snow remains during Polonius’ burial scene while the doomed Ophelia glides downriver among fresh flower blossoms.
The performers’ singing and acting fail to overcome the opera’s confused conception. After a shaky opening scene, Marie-Eve Munger does a beautiful job with Ophélie, particularly with her mad scene, and Brian Mulligan sings and performs manfully as Hamlet, though his mad scenes tend to be more manic than revealing or sympathetic. Wayne Tigges is appropriately heavy as the scheming uncle and Katherine Goeldner is effective as Hamlet’s distressed mother, Gertrude.
All the cast sing and act energetically, but their efforts cannot overcome the strictures of 19th century French opera nor of Elsinore conceived as a third-world dictatorship. Even opera must maintain a consistency of theme and setting to maximize audience entertainment. Rather than madness to discover the conscience of a king, this Hamlet’s wackiness exceeds its cast’s abilities to sing.