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Haunted "Hamlet"

Lisner Auditorium
09/11/1998 -  
Ambroise Thomas : Hamlet
Russell Braun (Hamlet), Annick Massis (Ophelie), Elizabeth Bishop (Gertrude), Stephen Morscheck (Claudius), Chad Shelton (Laerte), Byron Jones (Marcellus), James Shaffran (Horatio), Peter Volpe (Ghost of Hamlet’s Father), Joe Minor (Polonius)
The Chorus and Orchestra of Washington Concert Opera, Stephen Crout (conductor)

The production of Thomas’ rarely seen Hamlet mounted by Washington Concert Opera this weekend was haunted by more than Hamlet’s father. Prior to curtain time, the ghost of super-diva Ruth Ann Swenson was tangible in Lisner Auditorium. Ms. Swenson was originally scheduled to sing Ophelia, but backed out, citing scheduling conflicts, just two weeks ago. The audience members—many of whom heard of the casting change upon arrival, most of whom had never heard of Annick Massis—buzzed with speculation, curiosity, and some annoyance.

This ghost was blown, or rather blasted, away by the first appearance of Ms. Massis on stage—the Act I duet, Doute de la lumiere, confirmed the predictions of those in the know and obliterated the reservations of the disappointed Swenson fans. Ms. Massis possesses a soprano of great maturity and particular luxuriousness. Her voice is so rich that at times she gave the impression that the sound of a whole chorus was being produced by this one slender body. She floated individual notes of utter exquisiteness, but always as part of a well-conceived whole, never for their own sake. She entirely resisted the temptation to make the Mad Scene a disconnected coloratura showpiece. It was instead the devastating culmination of the characterization she had crafted from her first entrance. Ms. Massis combines her glorious instrument with a gift for understated but penetrating acting. To produce a portrait of the pale fleur crushed by circumstances, she used her aristocratic face and lovely hands with delicacy and precision. But it is her hauntingly expressive eyes that remain burned in memory, and which ultimately exorcised all vestiges of the spectre that loomed over the early part of the evening. Audience reaction was unanimous and uncontrolled. Waves of applause and "brava"’s burst forth so vehemently at every opportunity, that, despite the unquestionable brilliance of Ms. Massis performance, there was a distinct impression that Washingtonians were trying to make their opinion heard in a certain London recording studio.

Hamlet is not a lost masterpiece. It is not performed often presumably because the music is unimaginative and the libretto unfocused. However, if others could elevate the performance as far above the material as Russell Braun did for WCO, then perhaps more companies should consider adding it to their repertoire. Certainly there are other baritones who are more dazzling singers, but rarely does one find such a secure voice paired with the arresting acting displayed by Mr. Braun in the title role. Even in this concert staging, his Hamlet was a fully realized incarnation, illuminated by an uncommon depth of understanding of the character, and layered nuances of emotion that rivaled the most masterly stage interpretations of the melancholy Dane. Etre, ou ne pas etre was the epitome of a soul tortured by doubt and indecision, and Comme une pale fleur, his lament over his treatment of Ophelia, was a heart-wrenching display of regret, and the pain of love tainted by the actions of others. As haunting as haunted, Mr. Braun’s interpretation provided a cohesiveness and drive that was not intrinsic to the opera.

The rest of the cast performed admirably. Of particular note was Elizabeth Bishop, who used her powerful and flexible mezzo to as great effect for her distinctly regal Gertrude as she did in her much lauded Marquise de Merteuil in Washington Opera’s Dangerous Liaisons last season. Stephen Morscheck sang well, and exuded an appropriate combination of nobility and sleaziness as Claudius. Peter Volpe produced the unrelentingly low notes of the Ghost of Hamlet’s Father with such consistent ease, that it will be interesting to see how he handles the much higher tessitura of Don Giovanni in New York City Opera’s production later this season.

Washington audiences were fortunate to witness the process exhibited in this production of Hamlet, whereby a mediocre work was elevated into a truly extraordinary experience by the profound artistry of the gifted performers involved.

Mary Katherine Blackwood



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