Hamlet and Halka – Old to the World, Newly Presented

Old to the world, new to me — the following operas, that is. Stanislaw Moniuszko’s Halka had its first performance in 1848; Ambrose Thomas’ Hamlet had its first performance in 1868; I first knew of the existence of either opera in 2009; I first attended both operas last weekend, March 27-28, 2010. I thoroughly enjoyed both performances and will share my thoughts on them with San Francisco Splash readers.

Maestro Pippin and Halka, Patrycja Poluchowicz

On March 27, 2010 I saw Thomas’ Hamlet at the Cinemark in Palo Alto, California.  Shakespeare wrote Hamlet around 1600.  According to a fascinating Wikipedia article en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hamlet_(opera), Jean-Franois Ducis “translated” it into French in 1769.  The word is in quotes because Shakespeare would have found it barely recognizable: no ghost, no Rosencrantz, no Guildenstern, no players, no gravediggers, no duel, and no dead Hamlet.  It was still being performed at the Comdie-Franaise in 1827 when an English company gave a season of Shakespeare in English.  In general their Hamlet was quite pedestrian, except for an Irish actress, Harriet Smithson, who played Ophelia.  Her performance of the mad scene went far beyond Shakespeare’s words. Men wept openly in the theater, and when they left were “convulsed by uncontrollable emotion.”  The audience included composer Hector Berlioz and budding novelist Alexandre Dumas. Berlioz became infatuated with Miss Smithson and she was the inspiration for his Symphonie Fantastique.

Hamlet with a twist

For a decade or so Dumas brooded over the inadequacies of the Ducis version compared to the original.  In 1847 in collaboration with Paul Meurice (who had much better command of English) he wrote his own translation of Hamlet – much closer to the original, but still much less bloody.  The libretto for Thomas’ opera  was based on the Dumas-Meurice Hamlet – not on Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

“Based on …” implies more changes.  This will always be the case when adding music to a play – whether it be to create a grand opera or a Broadway musical. The total length can’t be much different, so if music is added, words must be subtracted.  And that is usually best done by leaving out entire scenes and characters rather than by cutting everyone’s lines in half!

Then there is the issue of French vs English audiences. Dumas believed that he
“improved” Shakespeare by restoring dramatic balance: “Since Hamlet is not
guilty to the same degree as the others, he should not die the same death as the
others.”  Thomas, the realist, hoped his opera would be performed in both countries so he wrote two different endings: one with Hamlet dead at the final curtain and one with him alive.  And I’m not going to tell you which ending the Met uses! You’ll have to find a theater that isn’t already sold out and go to the Encore performance at 6:30 pm (local time) on Wednesday, April 14.

Although the opera has 5 Acts, there is only one intermission between Acts II and
III.   As often is the case, we at the HD performance get to hear some great
interviews then.  When the curtain goes down, do not jump to your feet and race to
the restroom. Hold it in a few more minutes and hear Renee Fleming interview Hamlet (aka Simon Keenlyside).  It by itself is almost worth the price of admission.  An official 15-minute break with nothing vital occurring on screen will follow shortly.

Incidentally, this is not the first Met production of Hamlet, although it is the
first that I or any member of my family has ever seen.  The first performance by the
Met was in 1884. That production had a total of 9 performances between then and
1897.  Although both my parents were great opera fans, I am sure they didn’t start
attending while wearing diapers, and none of my grandparents showed much interest in opera.

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I have been attending Pocket Opera performances for many years and believe this company to be a hidden treasure in the San Francisco area.  On March 28, I had the chance to see Halka by Moniuszko at the Florence Gould Theatre in San Francisco.

Halka searches for her lover

My Polish friends tell me that Stanislaw Moniuszko is the second-most popular
Polish composer of all time, second only to Chopin.  After hearing his Haunted
Manor last year and Halka last weekend, I can believe it.  His music is very
listenable, and it well fits the action.  The Met has never produced a Moniuszko
opera – their only acknowledgement of his existence was at a fund-raising concert
in 1975 where one of the 14 musical selections was a soprano aria from Halka.

Such neglect cannot be justified musically, so it must be based on relative
unfamiliarity with the Polish language.  That was no problem for Donald Pippin who translates all Pocket Opera productions into English.  Or rather, he “adapts”
them into English.  In this case, he read a French translation with one eye, read a
German translation with the other, listened to the music with both ears, and used
his brain and his fingers to write the story being told in English which fit the music.

Halka searches for her lover

A Pocket Opera goer has three ways to keep track of what is going on.  First, by understanding the English words being sung.  This is surprisingly often the case since articulation is an important factor at auditions.  Second, from the supertitles, which are totally faithful to the sung text.  Finally, before each scene Donald Pippin gives a short precis of what is to come.  These are delivered with a perfectly straight face, although the words are frequently outrageously funny – or sometimes just outrageous.

Halka prays she will find her lover

Peasant maiden is seduced by noble Lord and has baby.  Girl chases after Lord, finds him on eve of his betrothal to beautiful daughter of rich Noble, is given sweet-talk to avoid embarrassment (for Lord) and is later kicked out of castle with dire warnings.  Baby is still-born, leading to a beautiful aria.  Girl plots arsonous revenge but at last minute opts for suicide.  Lord expresses belated remorse and his new bride … but I don’t want to spoil the suspenseful ending.

The opera includes celebrations for the betrothal near the beginning and for the marriage near the end.  Each one features a dance, here performed by members of the Lowiczanie Dance Company garbed in authentic Polish folk-costumes from the mid nineteenth century.  If you were totally committed to Halka’s sad plight, you might have resented this ostentatious display.  But if you could disengage your emotional self for the moment, they were a delightful mass of swirling color with lots of well-coordinated athletic dancing.

Dancing energetically

Have I intrigued you?  Well, if you live in the Bay Area and if you are reading this within a couple of days after I write it, you have one more chance:  Saturday April 3, 7:30 pm at the Julia Morgan Theatre in Berkeley.  But you still have time to see some of Pocket Opera’s dozen performances featuring 4 more operas this season:

La Rondine (Puccini) on April 24 and May 9
Rinaldo (Handel) on May 22 and  *June 5
La Vie Parisienne (Offenbach) on ^June 6, June 12 & 13, and *June 19
La Traviata (Verdi) on July 10, 11, 17 and ^July 18

All performances start at 2 pm
Except as noted, all performances at the Legion of Honor
* At Julia Morgan Theatre, Berkeley
^ At Napa Valley Opera House, Napa

Florence Gould Theatre
Legion of Honor
100 34th Ave
San Francisco, CA 94121

This review by Philip G Hodge appeared in sanfranciscosplash.com on March 31, 2010.

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