Thursday, November 22, 2007

Brush Up Your Shakespeare!

Three of Verdi's greatest operas -- Otello, Macbeth and Falstaff -- were inspired by the plays of William Shakespeare. While Verdi certainly hit it big with the Bard of Avon, he was by no means the only composer to look to Shakespeare for a strong plot. Gounod, Zandonai, Delius, Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky and Leonard Bernstein all produced variations on a theme called Romeo and Juliet. And composers as chronologically distant as Georges Frederick Handel and Samuel Barber have made hay out of Anthony and Cleopatra.

When one starts searching through the operatic repertoire for Shakespearean inspiration, one finds incredibly strong pieces of musical theater which are as stylistically diverse as Aribert Reimann's Lear, Lee Hoiby's The Tempest, and Cole Porter's Kiss Me, Kate! (which integrates The Taming of the Shrew into its backstage plot). Although Otto Nicolai's The Merry Wives of Windsor (first performed in Berlin on March 9, 1849) and Ambroise Thomas's Hamlet (which received its world premiere in Paris on March 9, 1868) were performed by two of America's leading opera companies in January, one proved to be a far more stageworthy work than the other.


Had it not been for the monumental efforts undertaken by Sherrill Milnes (who knows a good drinking song when he hears one) to have Hamlet produced as a vehicle for his talents by opera companies in San Diego, New York, Toronto and Chicago, few people in today's audience would have had a chance to experience Ambroise Thomas's musical treatment of one of Shakespeare's most famous tragedies. While there are moments when the French composer delivers some stunningly well-crafted moments of music theater -- most notably Hamlet's drinking song and Ophelia's mad scene -- the libretto by Jules Barbier and Michel Carre takes numerous liberties with the original script. To make matters worse, the extreme romanticism of the French musical style puts a very bizarre feeling on Shakespeare's story of the melancholy Danish prince who is trying to avenge his father's untimely death. Despite the use of Matthew Lata's Supertitles, the production lacked the kind of dramatic punch which could make it rise above the standard historical costume parade.

Using Carl Toms's revolving unit set (originally designed for the San Diego Opera) director Fabrizio Melano did his best to breathe life into the opera. Thanks to conductor Julius Rudel's extreme sensitivity to the French romantic style, certain moments of pageantry -- as well as the opera's two great showpiece arias -- came off quite effectively. But on too many occasions the evening threatened to implode under its own weight.

Strong musical contributions came from Monte Pederson's Claudius, Felicity Palmer's Gertrude, and Gregory Kunde's Laerte. Unfortunately, Milnes's portrayal of Hamlet was less of a dramatic enigma than continuing proof of why the opera has been relegated to such questionable status in the repertoire. While Milnes made the most of his music, he could not bring much dynamism to a character who is, at best, a manic depressive (the famous baritone also tended to stray a tiny bit off pitch on occasion).

For opera queens who get their rocks off listening to coloratura sopranos performing trills and roulades, Ophelie's mad scene is the most appealing kind of musical candy. Although she started out unevenly, soprano Ruth Welting grew stronger as the evening went on, delivering a finely-sung and rock solid mad scene in the grandest of operatic style toward the end of Act II. Welting's voice is still in great shape and, as she matures, she continues to remind audiences that the great age of bel canto singing is hardly over and done with.


Far more successful than Lyric Opera of Chicago's Hamlet was the Washington Opera's new production of Otto Nicolai's The Merry Wives of Windsor with costumes by Suzanne Mess and a deliciously clever picture postcard unit set designed by Bob Shaw. Directed by Leon Major with a delightful sense of fun in the Kennedy Center's intimate 1,100-seat Eisenhower Theater, The Merry Wives of Windsor offered audiences a well-sung romp and frolic through one of Shakespeare's most beloved comedies.

While particularly strong cameos came from Peter Volpe as the vainglorious Dr. Caius, Richard Croft as a surprisingly stentorian Fenton, Beverly Hoch as the diminuitive Ann Page and the hysterically funny Darren Keith Woods as a lisping Slender, the strength of Leon Major's production lay in the ensemble work by the principals, particularly Mark Pedrotti's Ford, Eric Johnson's Page and Kathryn Cowdrick's Mistress Page.

Kenneth Cox portrayed Sir John Falstaff as a lecherous and amusing bawd (the bass-baritone's characterization of Shakespeare's fat knight was all the more amusing to those who know how painfully skinny this talented American artist is in the flesh).

The opera's final scene in Windsor Forest was a total delight. However, special credit for making the evening such an artistic success goes to Sheryl Woods who, as Mistress Ford, very neatly tucked the performance into her pocket and walked off with the show. Ever since she gave birth, Woods's voice has been growing by leaps and bounds. When this soprano's impressive and rapidly maturing vocal resources join forces with her strong musical intelligence and extremely appealing stage presence, she offers audiences a potent and pretty artistic package.

Ms. Woods returns to the Washington Opera next year as Verdi's Gilda. But be sure to keep your eyes and ears tuned to her work in future seasons: Not only does this supremely talented American soprano have the ingredients to become a truly great international artist, like the best of wines she is aging very, very nicely.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on March 15, 1990

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