A newly commissioned opera about Hamlet runs the risk of being overburdened by Shakespeare’s profound handling of the material and its weighty legacy. Yet librettist Thomas Jonigk and composer Anno Schreier approached the project not as an operatic adaptation of Shakespeare’s tragedy, but rather one which freely draws motives from the Bard’s play and other related sources, forging a modern family drama in the process. A collaboration with director Christoph Loy from the outset, with the cast set early on, Hamlet is a well-crafted—and warmly received—success that festively launches the Theater an der Wien’s tenth season, yielding a work ready for further performances.
Jonigk and Schreier’s Hamlet is a tragedy to a limited extent, gaining critical distance through the introduction of Hamlet’s dead father as a speaking role, executed with panache by the commandingly expressive countertenor Jochen Kowalski. The main characters are unaware of him, as well as the chorus, which also plays an important role. They begin as complete outsiders, or rather observers of the unfolding sordid events, in a play-within-a play manner that resonates meaningfully with Shakespeare’s treatment of the material. Furthermore, the chorus is the main conveyor of Shakespearean text, including the iconic passage “to be or not to be,” which is relieved of any brooding tone and is set in the form of a madrigal, ultimately abandoning its restrained form for the climactic cry “to sleep, to die.” The Arnold Schoenberg Choir is precise and theatrically effective throughout. They appear first in Elizabethan dress, as they gaze in astonishment and disgust at Gertrude’s overtly incestuous bond to Hamlet. While remaining invisible to the opera’s main characters, they gradually become involved with the story, appearing in more modern dress, and they come to identify to some extent with Hamlet and Ophelia. It is they who inform Hamlet, while he sleeps, that Claudius was his father’s murderer. Other inventive additions include a comic pastor, through which Schreier expands the musical palette, somewhat pastiche-like, in the direction of distorted waltzes and operetta. Prokofiev lurks in these shadows, the dramaturgy and music of Richard Strauss even more so.
At the centre of the solid cast is Andrè Schuen, a resonant baritone whose boyish appearance enhances his convincing portrayal of the disillusioned Hamlet. There’s a clever twist. When he takes to lamenting his father’s death in Act I, Schreier begins the scene with a low Verdian ritornello figure. Scheun’s self-pitying mood is interrupted, however, repeatedly and abruptly, by none other than his father’s ghost, who quickly corrects matters by explaining that he never had a meaningful relationship with his son, for whom he has no respect, likewise his passive, narcissistic generation. Gertrude and the pitiful Claudius, a quirky figure brilliantly acted and sung by Bo Skovhus, of course fare no better in the ghost’s opinion. The female leads, Marlis Peterson and Theresa Kronthaler as Gertrude and Ophelia respectively, are more central characters than in Shakespeare’s play and both are demanding vocal roles, sung and acted here with penetrating intensity.
Sex is foregrounded in the story as addictive but meaningless. For Ophelia it is a way out of poverty. She has, it turns out, served as prostitute to all the powerful men of Denmark. In the climactic ensemble finale of Act I, in which she and Hamlet are juxtaposed with Gertrude and Claudius, the possibility of love is a fragile idea. Throughout the opera, attraction is almost always coupled to ambivalence or revulsion, foreplay cut short by an abiding sense of inner conflict that curtails action. The one sexual act in fact takes place offstage, and results in Gertrude becoming pregnant with Claudius’ son. She controls the action in many ways, à la Lady Macbeth, ordering Claudius to execute one person after the other, which he does without reservation or conscience. A telling moment comes, however, when Gertrude laments to her son her fate, and that of all women, in a chauvinistic world. Although the principals are all in modern dress, this is clearly a pre-women’s lib society. She sees no way out, however, and ends by pathetically asking him “Do you find me beautiful?”
Seeking freedom from prescriptive ways of life is a recurring theme. Hamlet wants to avoid at all costs becoming king. And while he, like Ophelia, will end their lives at Claudius’s hand, death is not a way out, as his father’s ghost tells us repeatedly. Kurt Streit, unsettlingly superb as the morally bankrupt pastor, tells us that the other side is nothing but silence. This cyclical certainty of things is further reinforced by Hamlet’s father, who launches a short speech declaring a time of mourning early in the opera, in reference to his own death. His jealous brother repeats the speech, varied with the added reference to it being a time of joy, as he has just married his brother’s wife. The choral response, in taking up the idea of joy, chromatically underscores the irony here and in its repetition at the end of the opera, when two more have died but the birth of another Hamlet is imminent.
The entire action plays out in a steeply raked corner of a floral wallpapered room, with a single door that is opened in the second act to reveal a tiny glimpse of verdant nature. Ophelia alone has access to that world, but only when she dies, which she enters as Kowalski’s ghost beckons her, song-like (while sitting in the auditorium amongst spectators). Johannes Leiacker’s set effectively highlights the hollow, out-of-kilter lives of the opera’s main characters, while providing an acoustically beneficial performance space. Schreier’s score, for a mid-sized orchestra, is well-balanced and convincingly shaped by conductor Michael Boder. There are some remarkable timbres. The musical language is direct and accessible, revealing an understanding of operatic forms of earlier eras while remaining fresh and distinctive. It’s rare for an opera director to be involved in the development of a new work during the process of composition, but one senses that the taught, mature dramaturgical shape of this Hamlet benefited as a result.