For years it seemed that French composer Emmanuel Chabrier would have the last word on his colleague Ambroise Thomas. “There are two kinds of music, the good and the bad,” said the waggish Chabrier. “And then there’s the music of Ambroise Thomas.”
This is delicious, but grossly unfair. Indeed, one of the pleasures afforded by Thomas’ 1868 opera “Hamlet,” which opened Saturday in a no-holds-barred production by Minnesota Opera, is discovering how engaging the music is. It’s no wonder that this “Hamlet,” after long neglect, is now being widely revived beyond the borders of its native France.
That’s not to say the work is unproblematic. Shakespeare’s sprawling, precocious portrait of a doomed existentialist anti-hero seems, at first blush, irreconcilable with the conventions of French romantic opera. At times the incongruity is glaring.
Sounds like a job for Thaddeus Strassberger, the inventive director and set designer who gave us a thoughtfully political “Nabucco” in September. In his staging of “Hamlet” (whose earlier iterations were seen in Kansas City and Washington, D.C.), Strassberger cuts the knot, reimagining the action in a latter-day, dystopian Denmark — an Eastern European-style military dictatorship of Cold War vintage.
Such directorial escapades often draw sighs (or growls) from reviewers. But Strassberger, in large measure, escapes this fate, thanks to his musicality, to the vividness and detail of his vision — little is left to chance — and to the exacting realization of that vision by cast and production team. When everything clicks, as it does in the opening scene and in the scene with the troupe of players that “outs” Claudius as his brother’s murderer, the result is brilliant theater — brilliant in a way Thomas could scarcely have conceived.
The singing in Minnesota Opera’s production is at an equally high level. Brian Mulligan’s sturdy, expressive baritone and subtle acting serve him well as Hamlet. He creates a multilayered character: antic, mad and sometimes both. As Ophelia, Marie-Eve Munger threatens to steal the show, or at least the second half of it; with her silvery top and agile coloratura, this Canadian soprano has a bright future. Wayne Tigges (Claudius) and Katharine Goeldner (Gertrude) play their parts with gusto; both practically scream “Guilty” from the opening curtain (though their obligatory display of libido is a bit laughable). Smaller roles are strongly cast.
Costume designer Mary Traylor has a field day with the show’s many military uniforms, each more pompous than the last, and with the players’ get-up (shades of poker-playing-dogs painter C.M. Coolidge). Conductor Christopher Franklin propels his forces forward without slighting Thomas’ lyricism. Matthew Wilson’s horn playing is a treat. The chorus, from which much is asked, performs impeccably.
Larry Fuchsberg writes regularly about classical music.