One of the most brilliant Latvian musical compositions has returned to the stage of the National Opera: Jānis Kalniņš’s musical tragedy Hamlet, a story about strength and fragility, structured as ten scenes with interludes. The new production is the work of its musical director and conductor Mārtiņš Ozoliņš, stage director Kristina Wuss, scenographer Andris Eglītis, and costume designer Kristīne Pasternaka. The patron of the production is the Latvian National Opera Guild in the United States.
“Hamlet was completed in late 1935, with the composer working both in Latvia and Austria. It coincided with the time when the Latvian team claimed victory in the First European Basketball Championship, the Freedom Monument was erected with money donated by the Latvian people, and Latvian crafts were exhibited at the Trocadero in Paris. Soon, VEF began producing its VEF Super Lux MD/37 radio, featuring a picture of the map of Europe. Life was not out of joint quite to the extent as it was in medieval Denmark. Suddenly, a time tunnel emerges, joining moments from different centuries: 16th c. (play) – 1935 (opera) – 21st c.(paintings). The focus of these ten scenes, with interludes of different lengths, is conscience as it balances on the centrifuge of the revolving circle in the LNOB stage floor. While Shakespeare personifies this theme in at least 20 different characters, Kalniņš makes do with fewer. I feel like using white for the story, a situation of melting ice,” says Kristina Wuss, director of the opera.
The premiere of Kalniņš’s Hamlet, with Jānis Zariņš as stage director, took place at the Latvian National Opera, with the composer conducting. For the purposes of the libretto, the author of the opera had abbreviated the philosophical dialogues and long monologues, without sacrificing the core of the tragedy. The newspaper Rīts gushed after the premiere: “It’s been a while since our stately opera house has experienced such a brilliant premiere; it’s been a while since a Latvian composer has been greeted with such ovations; it’s been a while since the audience has been so enthusiastic and responsive as yesterday when the young Latvian composer Jānis Kalniņš conducted his opera Hamlet for the first time.” Another, musically changed edition of the opera, again with Jānis Zariņš as director, was produced in 1943. In both productions, the outstanding Latvian tenor Mariss Vētra sang the title role and the charismatic baritone Ādolfs Kaktiņš was Claudius.
Prologue | As a token of his love, Prince Hamlet gives Ophelia a necklace.
Scene 1 | Thaw. An ice-sailing race. The courtiers-sailors praise the new king, Hamlet's uncle Claudius, who deftly appropriates the mourning banner dedicated to his brother, the recently deceased monarch. Ophelia draws a portrait of the grieving Prince Hamlet. Ophelia's brother Laertes asks Claudius for permission to continue his studies in France, and the King agrees. The courtiers raise a scholarship for Laertes, but his father, the Chamberlain Polonius, keeps half for himself. Claudius forbids Prince Hamlet to continue his studies at Wittenberg. Hamlet's mother exchanges her funeral shoes for wedding shoes. Hamlet does not take part in eulogizing the new couple and is deeply saddened that his mother has so quickly forgotten his departed father. Horatio arrives and tells him that he has seen the ghost of Hamlet's father. The officers Marcello and Bernardo also confirm it.
Scene 2 | At midnight, Marcello, Bernardo, Horatio, and Hamlet meet on the porch of the palace to meet the ghost of Prince's father. Hamlet asks his companions to leave him alone. A great light flashes and his father's voice is heard, announcing that he has been poisoned by Claudius. He urges Hamlet to avenge him.
Scene 3 | Polonius’s study. In his spare time, the Chamberlain is forging another painting. Claudius ponders Hamlet’s unbalanced behavior, while Polonius brags about Hamlet’s love letter to his daughter Ophelia. Claudius and Polonius agree that they will observe the young couple in order to better understand the reasons for the Prince’s strange behavior.
Scene 4 | Hamlet contemplates leaving this world, but it does not seem so easy. He is met at the wrong time by Ophelia, who, as instructed by her father, tries to return the necklace given to her by the Prince. Hamlet denies having given his token of love to Ophelia, then notices that they are both being watched. The Prince asks Ophelia where her father is. At home... Prince, replies Ophelia, in her despair, not suspecting anything. Horatio stops Hamlet from attacking Claudius and announces the arrival of a group of actors. Claudius crowns himself with the crown that used to belong to his brother.
Scene 5 | The thaw continues. The strange dream turns into a ball where people dance with great abandon. The courtiers are comfortable on this slippery social parquet-ice. Hamlet pretends to be cheerful and invites Ophelia to dance. Soon, however, the dancing stops – and Hamlet is overwhelmed by an extraordinary sense of time. He thinks he has just lost his father. The general confusion soon passes as the group of actors arrives to perform the play The Mousetrap. Claudius follows the performance, then becomes greatly agitated and has it interrupted. He has recognized himself in the play's action. The ball breaks up. Polonius summons Hamlet to talk to Queen Gertrude. The Prince promises himself that he will be lenient with his mother.
Scene 6 | Claudius struggles with remorse for his crime and the desire to keep the country, the throne and the Queen. In the end, he decides that true repentance is not necessary.
Scene 7 | The Queen's salon. Polonius secretly overhears Hamlet and Gertrude talking. Convinced that it is Claudius who is hiding, the Prince stabs Polonius. He regrets what he has just done – and makes his mother remember the dead ruler, Hamlet's father. The conversation is suddenly interrupted by Claudius, who orders Hamlet to go to England.
Scene 8 | Storm at sea. Hamlet hurries back from England to the royal palace. Laertes is also back from France; he breaks in on Claudius, who tells him that Hamlet has killed Polonius. Ophelia gives those around her the sketches of flowers she has made and says goodbye to everyone. Claudius suggests to Laertes a plan to punish Hamlet with trickery and poison him in a duel; Laertes agrees. The Queen tells Laertes that the river has carried off his sister Ophelia.
Scene 9 | Two gravedigger-boatmen go about their daily business. Hamlet meets Horatio and shows him the intercepted document signed by Claudius ordering the Prince's death. Laertes, Gertrude and Claudius arrive to bid farewell to Ophelia. Hamlet watches and interrupts the ceremony. The time for the duel between Hamlet and Laertes is set.
Scene 10 | Claudius poisons Laertes's sword and gives the guests seats of honor from which to watch Hamlet and Laertes duel. He drinks in Hamlet’s honor, then pours poison into a goblet and offers it to the Prince. Hamlet refuses. During the fight, Hamlet and Laertes wound each other and the Prince knocks Laertes’s sword out of his hand. According to an old custom, the swords must then be switched. Hamlet’s next blow fatally wounds Laertes, who still manages to tell who the real villain is. As Gertrude watches the fight, she drinks the cup meant for Hamlet and bids farewell to the world and to her son. The Laertes’s poisoned sword strikes Claudius fatally. Silence. Hamlet passes away. Only Horatio remains to tell the true story of Prince Hamlet.