Joseph Summer’s Brilliant “Hamlet”

Hamlet cover

WAP 2022SUMMER: Hamlet / Omar Najmi, ten (Hamlet); Brianna Robinson, sop (Ophelia); Kevin Thompson, bs (Polonius); Evan Bravos, bar (Claudius); Michelle Trainor, sop (Gertrude); Katherine Pracht, mezzo (Horatio); Neal Ferreira, ten (Laertes); Melanie Forgeron, mezzo (Player Queen); Joseph Hubbard, bs (Player King/John the Gravedigger); Dobromir Momenkovv, bs (Rosencrantz); Teodor Petkov, bar (Guildenstern); Maria Anastasova, sop (Will); Andrey Mitev, treble (Child); Edward Vere, bar (Prologue); Emil Zhelev, bs (Priest); Mousetrap Scene Piano Trio: Eftima Evtimova, vln; Plamena Velichková, cel; Bozhena Petrovaivanova, pno; State Opera Ruse Orch. & Choir; Leo Hussain, cond / Navona NV6396

Joseph Summer is a Massachusetts-based composer whose work, though including some instrumental pieces, is primarily focused on creating songs and operas based on the words of William Shakespeare. Having listened to the majority of his recorded output, I found that many of the songs he had written based on Shakespeare’s sonnets and songs from the plays are really wonderful, as are his instrumental pieces Cello Sonata: 20 Variations on a Theme from the Hebdomad. Sycorax, Shakespeare’s Memory and Dance of the Mechanics, the last two also inspired by the Bard of Avon, but the music that most consistently riveted me were the excerpts previously recorded with piano accompaniment from Hamlet. Thus I was elated to learn that he had indeed expanded this into a complete opera, most of which is presented here on a recording for the first time.

Obviously, for dramatic and musical reasons, Summer had to edit the play to fit operatic dimensions. This is, of course, the same dilemma that Gounod faced when he set Romeo and Juliet, Verdi in Otello and Falstaff, and, the only really good predecessor to Summer’s work, Franco Faccio’s Amleto of 1865. Both Verdi and Faccio were extremely fortunate to have a true intellectual as their librettist, the brilliant Arrigo Boïto, thus even in condensation (one might say, a Reader’s Digest version of Shakespeare), the central core of Shakespeare’s plays were retained.

Summer’s Hamlet is much more expansive than Faccio’s (and I won’t even go into the travesty that Ambroise Thomas wrote), and his cuts are both sensible and not damaging to the drama. Thus, in the first act, he omits the entire opening scene with Bernardo, Francisco, Horatio and Marcellus, but begins with King Claudius’ monologue of Scene Two, “Though yet of Hamlet our dear brother’s death,” which is perfectly fine. I’ll refrain from commenting on further cuts for the sake of saving space, but if you wish you can access both the original play and Summer’s complete libretto (scroll to the bottom of that page) online to compare for yourself. I will stick to a description of the music itself.

Although Summer writes in a primarily tonal style, and does so here, he is not shy about using some modern chord positions or occasionally dipping into foreign harmony to make his dramatic points, and in Hamlet, even more than in his opera the Tempest, he does so quite frequently to great dramatic effect. Our Claudius, Evan Bravos, has a somewhat good voice (a little flutter obtrudes every now and then) but only tolerable diction, thus having the libretto handy helps a great deal. His opening monologue is stately and regal, as it should be, and Summer’s orchestra combines music of some ceremony with its unusual rhythmic and harmonic shifts. This section reminded me very much of some of Benjamin Britten’s better music of the 1960s. Our Laertes, Neal Ferreira, has quite a fluttery voice and also poor diction. What I’m hearing is an attempt on the singers’ parts to enunciate the music as if they were British, but what this does is to give their diction a false posture that sounds neither truly British nor very clear. But that’s what the libretto is for! Soprano Michelle Traynor, as Gertrude, has a solid but shrill and very nasal voice. More or less, however, the cast gives their best, and considering that these are not, for the most part, world class singers, the results are at least listenable. (To be fair, and by way of comparison, the one commercial recording of Faccio’s Amleto has far worse voices than this performance.)

But then comes tenor Omar Najmi in the title role, and this IS a world class voice in every respect: firm, beautiful, perfectly controlled with equalized registers, clear diction and an outstanding dramatic interpretation. He is everything you could want or ask for in a Hamlet; I could listen to him sing all day long. In passing, I should mention that I was very pleased to hear the way Summer wove the songs/arias from Hamlet I had heard on his other CDs into the finished opera; everything is seamless, bespeaking a composer of great skill. And, as I mentioned in my review of some of these pieces on his Centaur CD, Enterprises of Great Pitch, Summer matches words to music with unfailing skill. They sound just as you would imagine they would in an ideal world, and despite the occasional use of dissonance, he somehow managed to create music that has a British sound bias. Katherine Pracht, as Horatio, also has a splendid voice, but not quite as clear diction as Najmi.


Najmi as Hamlet, Robinson as Ophelia

The important thing, however, is that Summer keeps things moving and finds ways to continually morph and shift the music to sustain interest while setting the words to music that always sounds not only appropriate but perfect. I have no idea how much of this was written in white-hot inspiration and how much in long hours of meditation, but it almost sounds as if each act was created in a continuous burst of creative energy, and that’s how it should be. Both our Polonius (Kevin Thompson) and Ophelia (Brianna Robinson) have fabulous voices; these are also first-class singers. The shift into the scene where Ophelia tells Polonius that she is frightened features a solo violin; the orchestra quiets down to project her interior state of mind. Her music is much more angular than the other characters, encompassing large leaps up and down in her range, probably to indicate her confused state and fears. Robinson handles all of this with great aplomb, as if she has been singing this role all her life. What a soprano! How I wish there were many more like her! She sounds like a cross between Kathleen Battle and Leontyne Price. No break in the registers, an even sound from the very bottom to the very top of her range, a good trill and exquisite phrasing. She only needs to work a little more on her diction to make the words clearer.

As you listen and read the libretto simultaneously, you will notice occasional lines and even whole scenes that are left off this recording. Apparently, there were some sections cut from the recording in order to fit it all on three CDs; considering how good the music is, this is a shame, particularly for a first recording of an entirely new opera of such high quality.

Hamlet_Notes-4The music leading into the exchange between Hamlet and the ghost is also extremely well done, suggesting the supernatural without sounding, yet, entirely ominous. Interestingly, the ghost is sung by a mixed chorus, an interesting touch, and they have some of the most dissonant music in the entire opera, which again makes good dramatic sense. Sadly, the chorus doesn’t have very clear diction, either. The slightly eerie music of the ghost scene then shifts, seamlessly, into stately court music for the scene with Polonius, Gertrude and Claudius. One is continually amazed at how well Summer dovetailed the rhythmic flow of Shakespeare’s words into his music without making it sound too forced or contrived, yet there are a few moments (such as Polonius’ monologue beginning “Good madam, stay awhile”) where I wished that he had increased the tempo a bit in order to move things along. But these are not frequent moments, and the music chosen in lieu of faster-paced themes was clearly not uninteresting or inferior. The polyphony used in the final scene of Act I is not only skillful but quite interesting, showing everyone’s words and thoughts crossing each other.

Act II, again, completely omits the opening scene, here involving Polonius, Reynaldo and Ophelia; I, for one, did miss her monologue, “He took me by the wrist and held me hard.” It also omits the second scene with Claudius, Gertrude, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, but this is not a crucial scene; it’s also quite long. Rather, it picks up two-thirds of the way through Hamlet’s monologue once the last two-named have exited, starting with “I have heard that guilty creatures sitting at a play,” and it does include the re-entry of Gertrude with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. The music here is rather more lyrical than in the first act, which is a welcome relief; there were a few moments in CD 1 where I felt the orchestration was a little too thick and edgy. In the second act, too, Summer creates more concerted scenes with the singers, which are also quite good. The orchestration, though less dense, is no less interesting, at one point combining French horns with chimes and using a solo trumpet behind Hamlet in one of his scenes and using a solo bass to introduce Hamlet’s most famous monologue, “To be or not to be.” This is a superb setting of these famous lines, bringing out the drama in them without overdoing it too much. And with voices this good, the Ophelia-Hamlet duet is both dramatic and quite beautiful, although I thought the famous line, “Get thee to a nunnery” should have been more strophic; it would have given the line more bite; but he cleverly introduced a 6/8 rhythm, which switches back and forth between that meter and a straight 4, for the ensuing exchange between Ophelia, Hamlet and Polonius.


Joseph Summer and Omar Najmi

Summer also cleverly uses a piano trio to play the music for the play-within-a-play, The Mousetrap, and includes the sound of them tuning up. I’m not so sure, however, that Summer should have had the Player King and Queen of the dumbshow sing; it takes up valuable time in the opera and holds up the drama, even though the music is quite interesting. (Perhaps this should be given as a separate scene in performance, outside of the opera.) The scene which culminates with Hamlet singing “What a piece of work is man” is also quite extraordinary, using lower instruments in the orchestra to give weight to the drama. The Gertrude-Hamlet duet is also very well written, again with the ghost represented in the background by the chorus.

Act III opens with the Gertrude-Ophelia scene, introduced by rumbling basses and the piano trio. The latter’s arioso, “Pray you, let’s have no words of this,” is excellent, and knitted into the fabric of the scene. Ophelia’s mad scene is excellent music, and rather different from the one with piano accompaniment on Enterprises of Great Pitch. There is a good instrumental interlude leading to the Player Queen’s singing of “There is a willow grows aslant a brook.” One small weak moment comes when Laertes reacts to Ophelia’s death; I just didn’t think the music had much empathy in it. Summer also uses a great deal of counterpoint in the scene, “Give me your pardon, sir.”

Overall, I felt that Summer did an excellent job setting the often long and not very “musical” lines of Shakespeare in this opera. It could not have been an easy task, and must have cost him countless hours to come up with just the right notes—and moods.

Bottom line: this setting of Hamlet is, as I stated earlier on, a masterpiece, but it is clearly not an opera that will appeal to the average operagoer. There are no conventional tunes or arias, and although the singers have high notes to sing they come in the middle of scenes and are not held on to for 10-12 seconds so the audience can go nuts with applause. Sadly, too many opera lovers only love the older, tuneful works of the past. They will not move up to works in which the music is inherently dramatic and not inherently tuneful, and that is a pity. Those readers who feel as I do about opera as drama, however, should not hesitate to obtain this set. Without hearing the missing portions of the score, I can’t say if they would strengthen what is here or not, but the recording as such is a very fine one, and I recommend it very highly.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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