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To Be A New Hamlet

Navona takes a risky step forward with a recording of a new opera setting of Shakespeare’s Hamlet by composer Joseph Summer (Navona 6396). The release is part of their ongoing Shakespeare Concert Series though this performance was recorded in Bulgaria featuring the Ruse Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leo Hussain. Some of the songs had appeared on one of those earlier releases. This is a massive 3-hour work getting its premiere here from this Bulgarian orchestra and chorus and with nine primary cast. Summer can be heard discussing the ins and outs of this project in this interview.

Summer’s music is in a Neo-Romantic feel with some brass that hint at the period a tad here and there. The vocal writing has a more declamatory quality which moves through the opening set ups rather quickly. The story has been grouped into three acts with some pairing down and even some of the libretto appears to not have been recorded here. The music does exhibit a good sense of orchestral command with some brilliant moments that help build things well. Often the gestures are quite romantic in style. Whether this all works for the listener is going to be one of personal taste as it is clear that this is an overall fine take on this play. The music needs more bigger standout moments that shift in style and can better let a character connect more on an emotional level. “Oh my Lord” in Act One comes close achieving just such a moment in an extended sequence. Exquisite writing for Ophelia (beautifully sung by Brianna Robinson) helps this stand out. Mostly though, the vocal settings follow upon one another in more recitative-like fashion. While it moves the story forward briskly, it can be a bit wearing at first as one acclimates to the sound. The familiarity of the story does help here to keep one’s attention.

The recording will take a bit of getting used to as the orchestra feels very recessed in the sound picture. The orchestra sound is also quite dry (sort of like some of the Eastern European Radio orchestra recordings). On the one hand, that does allow the voices to cut through, but it makes the orchestra sound like it is in another room rather oddly at times. Some of the low ends are a bit murky as well. Fortunately, the vocalists are all on task here with some excellent performances pulled from the leads. All of that aside, this is well worth exploring for those interested in contemporary opera and once we are passed the 30-minute mark it has firmly captured the listener in this new sound world.

The packaging will be a bit frustrating as the libretto is only available online and this will be necessary to have in hand when it is harder to distinguish a line or two. The casing is cardboard with plastic disc inserts to hold things so that is a bonus. Of course, that also has made this a more economical grab for fans of American opera which will allow it a bit more access than might have occurred. One suspects that Hamlet is a work that will bear up with repeated listening as one becomes acclimated to Summer’s musical style and this interesting adaptation.


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