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Orchestral Music, Theatre Review Print

Alas, Poor Hamlet

February 15, 2008 - Raleigh, NC:

By Elizabeth and Joe Kahn

Everyone wants a piece of greatness, whether it be of rock stars or literary classics. Karl Wilhelm Friedrich Schlegel, the nineteenth-century German poet, whose translation of Shakespeare's oeuvre is still accounted among the best in any language, referred to the Bard as "unser Shakespeare" ("our Shakespeare"). Although English literary scholars want an authentic Shakespeare, served up in the un-cut acting editions of the Prompt Books — preferably in replica Globe Theatres — most everyone else brings to the canon his or her own take in a slew of films, operas, ballets, modernizations, novels, satires and even new plays. No single play gets as many such makeovers as Hamlet.

Shakespeare's procrastinating protagonist strikes an archetypal chord in audiences and adaptors alike, piercing the Iron Curtain in the early 1960s to inspire cinematographer Grigory Kostinov and composer Dmitry Shostakovich. This drastically cut — and sometimes reorganized — production in a plodding Russian prose translation/adaptation by Boris Pasternak redeems itself with breathtaking black-and-white cinematography accompanied by a haunting background score. Kostinov clearly understood that Shakespeare's language, which through words transformed a small wooden stage into the rest of the world, could never be replicated in Russian. Instead, he recast Shakespeare's verbal images back into visual images. Shostakovich in turn transformed those pictures into pure sound.

Conductor John Mauceri became fascinated with the idea of performing yet another transformation on Hamlet by playing Shostakovich's score for the soundtrack with a live orchestra, pairing it with yet another adaptation of Shakespeare's play with live actors. Mauceri, formerly conductor of the Hollywood Bowl Symphony, has had long experience working with concertized film scores. Film archives are full of first-rate music, some of it written by important composers of concert music from the American Aaron Copland to German refugees like Erich Korngold, to Soviets Sergey Prokofiev and Shostakovich himself, who composed music for countless propaganda films for Stalin to keep himself out of the gulag. But by the time Shostakovich commenced work on Hamlet, Stalin had been dead for a decade and the composer was able to create a fine, personally "genuine" score for a film devoid of any Soviet agenda.

Now chancellor of the North Carolina School of the Arts, Mauceri teamed up with the school's Drama Department and the North Carolina Symphony to create another version of Hamlet, to Shostakovich's score. This second transformation of the play put back much of the poetry the Russian film version had omitted — especially Hamlet's complete soliloquies — but made its own set of severe cuts, including the characters of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and the speech we all love to hate, Polonius's advice to Laertes. Shostakovich's score was left intact. And, "Ay, there's the rub!" for it was difficult to tell whether the music or the play was driving the creators of this new adaptation, director Gerald Freedman and Mauceri. 

Shostakovich composed much of the music for specific cinematographic images, for example, long passages to accompany scenes of the usurper Claudius's court, which have no textual counterpart in the play itself, save Hamlet' s "Oh, that this too too sallied flesh would melt," which gets cut in the film. In the NCS production this resulted in several minutes at the very beginning of the performance, watching Gertrude and Claudius do a silent stylized minuet punctuated with tasteless kissing, a foreshadowing of the Players' mime before the "Play within a Play." Shostakovich's "Ghost" music, composed for images of Hamlet's father as he glides over the parapets of the gloomy but magnificent castle on the Estonian coast, turned out to be too short to accompany the concert Ghost's tale, which had to be speeded up to an un-ghostlike pace. But the most serious problem occurred at the end with the fatal duel between Hamlet and Laertes. In the film, the music stops to accommodate the lines between the bouts, most importantly Claudius's pearl gambit as he spikes Hamlet's wine with poison, and Gertrude's denunciation and death from drinking it. In performance, Mauceri decided to retain the music uninterrupted, thereby severely compressing and botching the denouement.

The NCS performance included a cast of six actors, faculty and alumni from the NC School of the Arts, playing ten roles (plus the players). Dressed in black with props and some costume modifications as necessary, they gave mostly fine performances. Lucas Hall's Hamlet was a little too hysterical and high-pitched at the beginning, but he soon settled down for a more considered interpretation. Veteran actor Cigdem Onat was convincing as Hamlet's mother and appropriately inappropriate as Claudius's queen. Jerry Miceli was terrific at turning on a dime in the last act for the diametrically opposed characters of Laertes and Horatio. John Woodson was a pompous Claudius and a hurried Ghost (see above). Our favorite, though, was Richard Fullerton as Polonius/Gravedigger/Osric, all great character roles for a fine senior character actor. The only disappointment was the seriously miscast Sarah Viccellio, who played Ophelia as Britney Spears. Shostakovich's stroke of genius in accompanying Ophelia's dancing lesson in the film (not in the play) with a halting harpsichord ditty missed the mark on two counts: because of Ms. Viccellio's affectless acting and the omission of the image context for the music.

The important question raised by this experiment in melding the arts is: Was it worth it? Our own answer: a qualified yes, worth a try, even if it didn't really work all the time; and it was fascinating to see the process. After all, we're willing to put up with Verdi's Witches for the rest of Macbeth. Like the "funeral-bak'd meats" that served both for Hamlet's father's funeral and his mother's wedding, this re-re-adaptation of Hamlet was also a means of resurrecting from oblivion a fine musical score. But the music, into which the often-artistically-compromised Shostakovich incorporated the rhythm of his own name as the principal theme, may just be strong enough to stand on its own. The NCS should be applauded for taking such a risk and we hope it will continue with such innovative programming.