Minnesota Mountings

Guthrie, Opera offer updated Shakespeare and Mercadante

I felt lucky to catch the Guthrie Theater’s “Hamlet,” partly because it was at least generally successful, and partly to see this distinguished troupe—in many ways one of the prime movers and exemplars of American regional theater in the last half century—in its last show in its historic home. The new complex, an architecturally spectacular three-theater complex by Jean Nouvel astride the Mississippi River rapids, should prove a major tourist attraction for years to come. Tyrone Guthrie opened the company—and this particular theater—in 1963 with this play, starring George Grizzard and Jessica Tandy as Gertrude.

The Broadway actor in Joe Dowling’s current production, Peter Michael Goetz, plays Polonius but for the matinee performance April 8 was replaced—extremely well—by Stephen Yoakam, a witty concept of the old windbag as a polished, efficient organization man fancying himself both worldly and insightful. Yoakam, earning many of the afternoon’s more honestly garnered laughs, usually portrays the First Player, here dressed as a suave, lordly actor-manager gentleman actor à la Maurice Evans—now Stephen Pelinski, who looked impressive and declaimed gracefully, but without the volume that would go with such an image.

Matthew Greer as Claudius and Christina Rouner (of Edward Albee’s “Three Tall Women”) as Gertrude were younger and sexier rulers than usual, and both spoke with conviction. As Ophelia, Leah Curney seemed too much an all-American girl out of the world of William Inge—Ophelia is after all an habitué of the court—but she did her mad scene well. Laertes usually goes to the young actor most likely to be cast in soap operas—Markus Potter, though capable, was no exception. The impressive Horatio, played by the handsome, articulate, and credibly princely Kevin O’Donnell, would make a fine Hamlet.

Dowling took a risk confiding the name part to a very young actor of evident talent and intelligence, Santino Fontana. To me, his relentlessly whiny vowels and uncharismatic presence made for an uningratiating portrayal—Hamlet as a composite of Ben Stiller’s neurotic urbanite film roles. Fontana articulated words clearly but often seemed to work against the rhythm of the verse, stressing too many words in a given line or providing jarringly contemporary spins to many random phrases. His unlaced boots while feigning madness and the brown slacker ski hat on his return to Denmark combined with what are best described as ‘90s television intonation patterns seemed an attempt to resonate with the iPod generation; similarly, some of Fontana’s physical movements, bits, really—mocking Polonius or the “sponges” Rosencrantz and Guildenstern—were straight out of Donnelly Brothers-type teen comedy. Whatever laughs of recognition they garnered from a matinee audience, they clashed with the staging’s otherwise effective 1930s proto-fascist aesthetic.

In the second act, Fontana improved, seeming more focused. He and Potter made the fencing scene uncommonly convincing; indeed Dowling aced all the tough-to-pull-off public scenes, including the Players’ tragedy and Ophelia’s funeral. That made up in some measure for the soliloquies. Though Osric was cheaply caricatured as a flittery queen, many other mainstays of the company honored small roles with fine performances. The Guthrie’s trajectory should be exciting to trace in their new quarters.

Minnesota Opera wisely mines two special veins that draw audiences from both coasts—contemporary works and bel canto rarities. This year’s bel canto entry, well worth the reviving, was “Orazi e Curiazi” (“The Horatii and the Curatii”) by Saverio Mercadante (1795-1870). The prolific composer’s oft-cited appellation as “a stepping stone for Verdi”—was meant—according to Mercadante expert Tom Kaufmann—not as demeaning of but as praising his talent and innovations.

This staging marked the U. S. premiere of the 1846 “Orazi e Curiazi,” the 50th of Mercadante’s 56 operas At this later stage in his career, when he no longer sought to be an innovator, fluent melodies came easily to Mercadante: but not memorable ones. Much in “Orazi e Curiazi” suggests parallel developments in the scores of Donizetti and even Meyerbeer. The strongest parts are the big public scenes––a wonderfully built, exciting Act One finale, a splendid prayer-like ensemble for the male leads and men’s chorus in the Oracle’s cave that seems like a midpoint between “Idomeneo” and “Aida”—and the final scene, in which the bereaved Camilla calls into question the whole enterprise of war. Here, one thought both of Giselda in Verdi’s “I Lombardi” and the challenger to a latter-day questionable Middle Eastern incursion, Cindy Sheehan.

The story, derived from Livy via Corneille’s tragedy “Horace,” concerns Rome in the age of the kings—before both Republic and Empire, circa 600 B.C. An ongoing power struggle with neighboring rival Alba complicates life for the Roman Camilla, engaged to the Alban warrior Curiazio. Her three brothers end up fighting him and his two brothers to determine the outcome; Rome wins, with only her brother Orazio left alive, but Camilla’s furious denunciations of patriotism winning out over friendship and love lead him to stab her.

Brenda Harris (Camilla) really understands the bel canto idiom to the depths of her being; one forgave the occasional hardness at top forte for the terrific style—bulls-eye trills, long-drawn quiet lines, excellent staccati, and passionate declamation. Scott Piper’s very dark tenor sometimes seemed surrounded by a pitch-obscuring cloud, as if he were trying to pressure his larynx into making big Cura/Licitra type noises; but when he relaxed he provided cleaner tone and some real tonal shine, and certainly he’s a dashing, committed actor. Baritone Ashley Holland (Orazio) proved stolid of delivery but stylish and firm-voiced.

Bass Christopher Dickerson did creditably in the Orazio father’s off-the-rack scene with chorus. One wished Karin Wolverton’s excellent, pearly soprano had more to sing in the potentially interesting role of Sabina, the sister of the Curatii married to one––which one is never specified––of Orazio’s brothers; the character is absent for the finale. Theodore Chletsos showed a fine, stylish tenor as the High Priest. Francesco Maria Colombo obtained good Italian from the cast and healthy-sounding orchestral playing.

The production by Eric Simonson, called away on family emergency, was creditably staged by Peter Kozma, though crowd scenes seemed a bit stiff after “Hamlet.” Neil Patel’s sets—moved by extras just once or twice too often—and Káren Kopischke’s costumes placed the action in the Civil War, with Rome as the South. In terms of historical accuracy, Patel’s big central neo-Classical Temple might even evoke a Southern capital more than the large rural town that was Rome under King Tullus.

David Shengold (shengold@yahoo.com) writes about opera for many venues.

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