Fort Worth Opera
Conductor – Joe Illick
Director and Scenic Designer – Thaddeus Strassberger
Costume Designer – Mary Taylor
Lighting Designer – Chad R. Jung
Wig and Makeup Designer – Steven Bryant
Repetiteur – Emily Jarrell Urbanek
English Supertitle Translation – Ward Holmquist
Spanish Supertitle Translation – Gabriela Lomónaco
Stage Manager – Gina Hays
Claudius – Kim Josephson
Gertrude – Robynne Redmon
Hamlet – Wes Mason
Ophelia – Talise Trevigne
Laertes – Kevin Newell
Marcellus – Dane Suarez
Horatio – Nate Mattingly
Ghost – Stephen Clark
Polonius – Wesley Gentle
Gravedigger 1 – Matt Moeller
Gravedigger 2 – Brian Wallin
Reviewed Performance 5/2/2015
Reviewed by Laurie Lynn Lindemeier, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
The 2015 Fort Worth Opera Festival ends their season with a grand French opera that receives few performances in the U.S. but was certainly well received by the audience in Bass Hall Saturday evening. And for good reason. Of all the operas in the metroplex this year, this specialty opera is the one not to be missed! All the puzzle pieces that complete a successful performance are there: brilliant composition, a familiar yet unnerving story, innovative staging, alluring visuals, excellent acting, and a stellar cast of singers that tore off the castle roof with their voices, There you go--the whole enchilada!
From the onset, as the orchestra moaned the darkly-colored orchestrations by Ambroise Thomas, I felt simply spooked as if a ghastly rat had run over my feet. The timpani rumbled, the strings whimpered, and the French horn murmured, setting the mood for the treacherous Hamlet story to unfold. Conductor Joe Illick did a fine job leading his orchestra throughout the depths of Thomas’ intense writing. Never once did I sense imbalance between the singers and the orchestra. Albeit, the strong cast was not likely to be overpowered by any orchestra or a typhoon for that matter. The singers’ voices did not trail off or become inaudible when they turned their heads to interact with each other - a mark of good technical ability and training. Yet, it can be said that although the cast was technically sound, it was in no way a mechanical performance. I felt the seething drama of the dark Shakespearean tale every moment.
The production was divided into four acts that concluded with a “Fort Worth” finale. The original play the opera is based upon ends with a high body count, including Hamlet, but the opera version has been performed in various ways. Thomas wrote an ending with fewer corpses strewn about for his French audiences, who didn’t care to see their royals assassinated. However, he redesigned a more accurate-to-the-play ending for the British performances as Thomas knew they were keen to accuracy when it comes to their bard’s dramas. I won’t reveal which version was used and spoil it for you but, suffice it to say, their ending might cause you to spill your tea if you could sip a cup while viewing the final scene.
Fort Worth Opera’s mixture of old and new treatment of Hamlet is refreshing. Although I may not have completely swallowed the R-rated staging in one scene, the overall drama action created by director and scenic designer Thaddeus Strassberger was fascinating. I’m not a fan of staging that takes one too far from the meaning of the words being sung, however I did enjoy watching Ophelia set a picnic while wearing a 1950s-ish striped dress, and cat-eye glasses. For a moment I had a “Hopelessly Devoted to You” déjà vu as she read from her book and pined for her man to show her attention.
Yet, Ophelia, as sung by the fabulous Talise Trevigne, was anything but demure from the get go. She had her hands all over Hamlet, sung by baritone Wes Mason. Can’t say that I blame her. Mason wore a tight, white T-shirt and portrayed a nicely virile prince. Both singers simply knocked my pumps off with their vocal prowess. That alone would not have impressed me, but they also employed potent dramatic skills for a seamless performance. These roles are highly demanding and both were up to the task.
I enjoyed the spunky characterization Trevigne came up with for Ophelia. There were a couple of times, however, that pushing Hamlet away didn’t match the mood of her text. Nonetheless, Trevigne was dead on with her mad scene as she sang the florid, “À vos jeux, mes amis.” Thomas’ ravishing melodies shone in this aria as Ophelia wailed through one melismatic passage after another and sang herself into lunacy. The expansion of Ophelia’s mad moments to a whole act was one stark difference from Shakespeare’s drama, but opera is not a genre to shy away from giving a soprano a chance to languish and draw out insanity for a half hour or so!
Now to Hamlet … what a voice! Wes Mason masterfully sang the role that holds many challenges for a baritone, as it was originally written for a tenor and retains much of that range. Mason had the notes and the characterization gripped firmly in his fist. In Act Three, I found Mason’s acting particularly moving as he sang to his father’s corpse lying in a glass casket. Whenever he interacted with his fellow singers, Mason caused the others around him to step up their acting level to the next rung. The only moment I questioned was his nonchalantly lighting up a cigarette when he first describes his love for Ophelia. The action just didn’t fit with the words.
Gertrude was sung by mezzo Robynne Redmon. At first I didn’t take to her portrayal, which lacked depth, but she warmed up to the role as the opera progressed. Her costumes changed drastically as well, beginning with a woman’s dull green military suit, then a glamorous crimson gown and white shawl, and ending in a modern black skirt, white blouse and pumps. I couldn’t follow the sense of the costumes but her character was consistently and increasingly cold and conflicted. She was loyal to her new king and husband and anxious to see her son marry happily, but had no moment of peace throughout the story.
Stephen Clark regally sang the role of the king’s ghost; however, his mulling around the stage done with purpose and motivation, just walking. At times I wished for the ghost to find a way to stand still and menace. His reappearance in the play within a play scene, where dog-faced actors and an on stage saxophonist plays a riff, was nicely timed and very effective.
As said, the costumes were quite a mixture as well, which I can only assume to have been intentional by designer Mary Traylor. Perhaps a story of deceit and death is timeless and belongs to no decade. The red gloves worn by Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother, were quite an obvious visual metaphor to having the blood of her late husband on her hands. The blue and white princess hooped gown for Ophelia was quite bizarre when compared to the sleek Sixties styles worn by chorus women.
The set was a simple but effective raked stage with a background of arches and pillars, reflecting coliseum architecture and a subtle Greek tragedy ambiance. Mimicking the costumes, everything in the twisted story was also a bit out of sorts, even the properties, the wheel barrow having been constructed with a backwards tray. Weapons from different eras, both pistols and swords were used.
Ophelia’s funeral scene was painted with a dismal gray, which made the bright red roses the mourners placed on the casket all the more effective, like drops of blood on cement after a shooting.
Lighting by Chad Jung was especially effective when stripes of light sliced through the fog as the ghost entered. In another scene Jung flooded plenty of light onto Ophelia’s blue and white princess gown giving her almost a Glinda-the-good-witch glow.
This final production of the Fort Worth Opera Festival is certainly jam-packed with surprises, and if you happen to be the persnickety type that doesn’t want anyone to mess with your Shakespeare, well get over it! This Hamlet will rattle your cage in a good way and remember, there’s always a cool prize when you get to the bottom of the Jack in the Box caramel popcorn carton.
The final performance on May 10th is a matinee, so at least you won’t have to go home in the dark after viewing ghosts, caskets and corpses. It’s just a little Halloween in May.
Fort Worth Opera Festival
Ball Performance Hall
4th and Calhoun Streets
Fort Worth, TX 76102
Final performance is Sunday, May 10th at 2:00 pm.
Tickets range from $17.00 to $195.00. Military receives a 50% discount. Student rush tickets are available, with ID, 15 minutes prior to performance.
Purchase tickets online at www.fwopera.org or call 817-731-0726
(Toll Free 1.877.396.7372).