Hamlet, The Chastity Tree
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In Review > North America

Hamlet, The Chastity Tree 

West Edge Opera

In Review Hamlet Oakland hdl 1117
Edward Nelson and Susanne Mentzer in West Edge’s Hamlet
© Cory Weaver

WEST EDGE OPERA opened its 2017 season with Hamlet (seen Aug. 5), the first Bay Area production of Ambroise Thomas’s opera in more than two decades. Edward Nelson was an exciting protagonist: in his first outing as the melancholy Dane, the Californian baritone cut an aptly youthful, agile figure throughout Aria Umezawa’s production. Nelson’s flexible voice sounded well placed and attractive even in the upper reaches of the role; ardent in “Doute de la lumière” and urgent in “Spectre infernal,” he projected a beautifully shaded soliloquy and rose to a movingly regretful “Comme une pâle fleur” following the death of his beloved Ophélie.

The peripatetic company’s latest venue, the Pacific Pipe warehouse, is a hulking industrial facility that lent itself to a suitably gloomy Elsinore, but Umezawa’s production was an often ungainly mix of elements. The action unfolded on Jean-François Revon’s set of asymmetrical panels; for the most part, lighting designer Lucas Krech kept the stage dim. Costumes, by Maggie Whitaker, spanned the contemporary and the vaguely futuristic; Hamlet looked boyish in a sleek black-and-white hoodie, while the chorus, sporting bike helmets and black grubbies, resembled workers in an industrial plant. Costumes for Claudius and Gertrude inexplicably featured rows of spiny quills sprouting from their backs.

Thomas’s opera, with libretto by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré, departs from Shakespeare’s text in significant ways, abandoning some characters altogether. Gertrude remains a principal, and veteran mezzo Susanne Mentzer fully inhabited the role, making the most of her grand, eloquently phrased arioso “Dans son regard plus sombre.” As Claudius, Philip Skinner started the evening sounding sonorous but flagged as the performance progressed.

Emma McNairy was a beguiling Ophélie. The soprano, memorable from previous West Edge appearances in the title role of Lulu and as the Duchess of Argyll in Powder Her Face, boasts a radiant instrument with a secure high extension. Her mad scene was mesmerizing, sung with a fine mixture of poignancy and abandon, despite the distraction of Umezawa’s staging. In the director’s most significant misstep, Ophélie, wearing a transparent skirt, went to her watery death as nymphs appeared under the fabric, visibly snatching at her from underneath. It was an ungainly device that detracted from the beauty and elegance of McNairy’s singing. Tenor Daniel Curran sang with clarity in the reduced role of Laërte. Paul Cheak’s Polonius, Kenneth Kellogg’s Ghost, Nick Volkert’s Horatio/First Grave Digger and Greg Allen Friedman’s Marcellus/Second Grave Digger completed the cast.  

Music director Jonathan Khuner, conducting from his own orchestral reduction, dispensed with much of the opera’s incidental music; the result was a musically persuasive two-hour-and-fifty-minute performance of verve and insight. Above all, there was Nelson’s Hamlet—a fine performance by a gifted young artist of a role that should serve him well.

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Nikki Einfeld and Christine Brandes in The Chastity Tree at West
Edge Opera
© Cory Weaver

The work of Mozart’s Spanish contemporary Vicente Martín y Soler (1754–1806) made a striking impression in West Edge Opera’s summer production of The Chastity Tree (seen Aug. 6). Directed by Mark Streshinsky, the company’s larky update of the composer’s 1787 opera L’Arbore di Diana cast a glowing light on the Valencia-born composer’s place in music history.

Martín y Soler’s rollicking buffa score has a libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte, which was written the same year that da Ponte was collaborating with Mozart on Don Giovanni. Peopled by gods and goddesses, nymphs and rustics, the plot centers on the chaste Diana, whose tree is a sort of arboreal chastity belt; it hurls fruit at her nymphs if they exhibit the slightest interest in sex. Enter Cupid, whose powers override Diana’s decree, allowing everyone—including Diana—to hook up.

The score lacks the sustained melodic interest of a Mozart opera, but the two-hour, forty-minute performance, in Italian with English surtitles, offered an abundance of musical pleasure. Streshinsky’s smart, imaginative staging integrated dance, choral numbers, lithe orchestrations and many opportunities for glorious solo singing.

The production, designed by Jean-François Revon, placed the opera around a rough-hewn tree made of ladders, made verdant by ten dancers from the Sarah Berges Dance Company, who remained onstage throughout, observing the action. Revon placed an enormous bed at one end of the stage, a bathtub at the other. Christine Crook’s costumes featured a pair of outfits for the androgynous Cupid—a hot-pink disco-era suit for the arrival of the petite god and a risqué red getup once he disguised himself as a woman.

The singers delivered their parts with distinction. Soprano Nikki Einfeld imparted vocal strength and precision to Diana’s high-placed coloratura flights. Her Act I aria, which brought to mind Mozart’s Queen of the Night, was a highlight, and Act II’s “Teco porta, o mia speranza” yielded a sweetly touching episode.  

Soprano Christine Brandes was a delightful Cupid, illuminating the role with superb comic timing and gorgeous tone. In his North American debut, German bass-baritone Malte Roesner exuded appeal as the woodsman Doristo. Tenors Kyle Stegall (Edimione) and Jacob Thompson (Silvio) were hilarious as the shepherds unwittingly caught in the crossfire, and Maya Kherani, Molly Mahoney and Kathleen Moss sang alluringly as Diana’s trio of lusty Nymphs. Conductor Robert Mollicone led an ebullient performance, keeping the music flowing and imparting a sense of revelation to this seldom heard but eminently worthy score.  —Georgia Rowe 

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