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Theater an der Wien

When dealing with Ambroise Thomas's Hamlet, you should forget everything you know about the play and accept the opera as a Second Empire work with a libretto that frequently sounds like the Bard in French. It's definitely not Shakespeare.

Hamlet isone of those operas one reads about in history books. Perhaps you know Ophélie's "mad scene" and possibly even Hamlet's "drinking song" from recordings, but it wasn't revived much until recently, when the current crop of gifted young baritones started looking into it.

Everything about Theater an der Wien's new production by Olivier Py (seen May 5) totally knocked me out. Staged in Gothic style in Pierre-André Weitz's mind-boggling, perspective-challenging, black brick catacombs, it became a mesmerizing ghost story with unforgettable images, starting from the downbeat, when Hamlet appears to be floating against a brick wall, slowly moving toward us.

He is, of course, en route to total madness, but who can blame him as part of the most dysfunctional operatic family since Elektra? Hamlet's behavior includes repeatedly running onstage and dumping a wheelbarrow of the bricks, which come in handy for Ophélie's suicide by drowning. While he is taking a bath, his mother, Gertrude shows more than maternal affection for him. Totally nude, Hamlet jumps from the tub, mounts her, then strangles her. He is also given to scrawling graffiti on the black walls, such as "Je suis le roi de mes douleur," and slashing patterns into his torso with a dagger.

Marc Minkowski fortunately chose Thomas's most logical ending, eschewing the version that ends happily and the one that was laughed offstage in nineteenth-century Paris due to the ridiculous pile of corpses at curtain time. In this version, Hamlet kills Claudius, then commits suicide.

Stéphane Degout made a strong case for keeping the opera around (the production moves to the Monnaie in 2013), delivering an intensely committed, multi-dimensional, gorgeously nuanced performance as Hamlet with his luscious, powerful bass-baritone.

Christine Schäfer amazed the ear with the pinpoint accuracy of the difficult coloratura passages in Ophélie's "mad scene," all the while painting the inevitable downfall of a haunted, doomed creature.

Stella Grigorian's raw mezzo added to Gertrude's depravity, abetted by the booming bass of Philip Ens as Claudius. The superb ensemble included the suave tenor of Frédéric Antoun as Laërte and the sepulchral bass of Jérôme Varnier as the ghost of Hamlet's father.

The Wiener Symphoniker played magnificently for Minkowski, but it was the Arnold Schoenberg Chor that once again made an indelible impact in the many choral passages. spacer


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