Saint Paul, Minn.
Strassberger has fashioned a politically charged update on both the Shakespeare play and the opera that Thomas and his librettists made of it in 1868. He opts for something closer to the playwright's body-strewn ending than that of the opera's librettists, updating the action to a stifling Cold War Soviet satellite country during a time of regime change just after a revolution that may or may not be a step toward liberation. During the opening chorus, while singers rush up and down the aisles proclaiming freedom from tyranny, a citizen hurls a tomato at an emblem of the new regime and is shot dead by guards. Later, a crowd pushes down a statue of Hamlet's father, the deposed king (or, we begin to suspect, dictator). Strassberger consciously mixes images from recent history. Were also in a banana republic just after the latest military takeover. Gertrude is an Eva Peron figure, scheming, guilt-ridden and sexually insatiable. Claudius is a treacherous drunk, barely able to stand up in his final scene. Hamlet's father, like Lenin, lies in state in a mausoleum. But is he really dead? He turns up looking pale but moderately healthy as one of the players in the King Gonzago mime. The production thrives on ambiguities. The set, an elaborate, burnt-out shell of a theater, suggests that what's going on is a perverse charade, a psychodrama being played out in Hamlet's mind--or maybe not.
Katherine Goeldner made a compellingly complex and richly sung Gertrude, a woman torn between her love for her son and her increasingly desperate attachment to Claudius. Wayne Tigges's Claudius was a villain walking on ever-thinning ice, while tenor Jason Slayden made Laertes a convincing party apparatchik. Canadian coloratura Marie-Eve Munger was an especially touching and poignant Ophelia (a bigger role in the opera than in the play). She may have overdone the madness gestures in the early scenes--some kind of St. Vitus's Dance, it seemed--but her mad scene near the end was exquisitely realized, believable and sung with the most agile, pure-toned high notes. (Strassberger's only misfire in this imaginative production was dangling poor Ophelia above the stage for the final ballad of the mad scene).
The excellent chorus sang with resonance and conviction, and conductor Christopher Franklin drew an immaculate performance from the orchestra, giving atmosphere, thrust and pungent lyricism to Thomas's vivid music (wisely, the scores weakest elements, the ballets, were cut). And much credit should go to Mary Taylor for the bright costumes and Mark McCullough for the lighting.