Whether Ambroise Thomas' "Hamlet" is to be or not to be a bigger player in the opera world should no longer be a question. In many ways, it's the great French grand opera that Gounod and even Verdi aspired to write, and it's hard to understand why it remains so rarely performed.
The Minnesota Opera made the conundrum of "Hamlet" even more puzzling a few weeks ago, with one of its most consistently strong and imaginative productions in recent years. Director Thaddeus Strassberger took Shakespeare's play about regime change and family dysfunction in 12th century Denmark and updated it to a vague but familiar police state in our own time, with gritty, graffiti-covered scenery of his own design. With a flawless cast led by Brian Mulligan as the tormented but purposeful prince, this "Hamlet" made perfect sense and had a dark relevance to current events.
When the murdered king's corpse was displayed in a glass case in Act 3, for example, it was eerily reminiscent of how the newly deceased Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez's corpse will be put on permanent display. The production opened with a grim statue of the dead king being pulled down, a la Saddam Hussein 10 years ago. That was followed by a faux rally by the new king's fans, who marched around in the audience with posters and fliers like -- well, like an American political convention.
Some things never change, including power grabs and government propaganda. Updated stagings of this kind can sometimes be just a distraction, but here it seemed like a natural setting for the type of brownshirt brutality in which Hamlet is caught. The atmosphere of the whole piece is oppressive, but Mulligan portrayed Hamlet, vocally and theatrically, with such energy and determination that gloom never quite descended.
The production, the first by the Minnesota company, had five performances at the Ordway Center in St. Paul and closed March 10. The company wraps up its 2012-13 season with Puccini's "Turandot," which opens April 13.
Thomas wrote nearly two dozen operas, including some complete revisions, but "Hamlet" is the one that might have kept his music alive since its premiere in 1868. The libretto by Carre and Barbier is concise and fast-paced, the orchestral writing (including occasional riffs on saxophone) is more progressive than Gounod's, and while the arias aren't necessarily tuneful, they're tuned to the emotions and dramatic needs of each scene.
For various reasons, among them the operatic tidal wave whose name was Wagner, "Hamlet" was all but lost. The Metropolitan Opera produced it three years ago for the first time in 113 years. But with more outings such as this one, "Hamlet" could find a more lasting place in the rotation.
One big reason the opera has had a muddled history was the composer's own Hamlet-like dithering over how to end it. He wrote both a happy ending, with the prince improbably ascending to the throne, and the true Shakespearian ending. The latter, which has prevailed in recent years, is clearly the way to go, as this production demonstrates.
Mulligan, whose long list of credits include a turn as Valentin in "Faust" at the Met last season, has a robust baritone voice, as velvety as a cabarnet, and seems completely at home with the French grand style and diction. He's also a fearless and athletic actor, a terrifying drunk in the party scene and a virtuouso killer in the end.
Canadian soprano Marie-Eve Munger, who's also right at home with French roles and will make her debut at La Scala this season, was by turns radiant and tormented as Ophelie. Her voice has the luster of maturity, but also an attractive youthful quality that's vital to this role. She was spellbinding in the Act 4 mad scene, where she could unleash all her coloratura talents.
Bass-baritone Wayne Tigges made a strong impression as the loutish Claudius, who has a peculiar hold over Hamlet's mother Gertrude. Katharine Goeldner, a versatile mezzo who was Giovanna Seymour in "Anna Bolena" at the Met a few years ago and Carmen at the Lyric the year before that, was persuasive as Hamlet's tenacious and conflicted mother. Seth Keeton, as the ghost, has the gravity and stature to loom over the action in many scenes, urging Hamlet on.
I heard the second to the last performance in the run, and the orchestra and conductor Christopher Franklin purred like a well-oiled machine by that time, tight and in full control.
So many of the director's touches were brilliant, from the first appearance of the ghost, in full fascist regalia, glowingly lit as he emerges from a tomb-like doorway, to the apotheosis of Ophelie, who is literally airborne amid the clouds in an abstract tableau after she cuts her wrist and drowns herself. The treatment of the ghost brings to mind the Statue in "Don Giovanni," while Ophelie's elevation is reminiscent of Marguerite's ascent into heaven in "Faust," which was written by the same two librettists.
There are reminders everywhere in this production of the cruelty of life, such as when the ghost sings mournfully, "My crown is on his (Claudius') head, and no one remembers me." When the gravediggers are goofing around and eating fast food in the final scene, one kicks the garbage into Ophelie's open grave before leaving.
Throughout, one of Strassberger's themes, brilliantly expressed, is the intersection of art and propaganda, or more like it, the hijacking of art by propagandists. While it's inevitable that after the play ends, the regime goes on, there's an almost palpable feeling of redemption in Hamlet's furious efforts to bring it down.