Janis Kalninš Opera Hamlets at the LNOB

January 10, 2022

Jānis Kalniņš’opera Hamlets first opened in Latvia on February 17, 1936, to great acclaim. Because of the Soviet, then Nazi, and then the second Soviet occupation, the opera never crossed its national borders into Europe and the New World. Nonetheless, it enjoyed more than 55 performances during the various occupations, until it was banned in the Latvian SSR. Renowned conductors Erich Kleiber and Leo Blech were enthusiastic about Kalniņš’ opera and wanted to have it produced in Europe, but World War II put an end to their efforts. The new production of Hamlets, which opened on January 13, 2022, at the Latvian National Opera and Ballet (LNOB) during the COVID-19 pandemic had a lot to live up to, and it did so brilliantly.

One might wonder how a 21st-century contemporary take on a 20th-century opera in a 19th-century opera house would sit, and I can reply only with superlatives. The LNOB house is a traditional horseshoe shape, small by North American standards, with barely 1000 seats, but beautiful beyond compare. It was refurbished twice: once after a fire destroyed large sections of the building in the late 1800s; and again in the 1990s, when it got a cosmetic facelift and updated technology. I had worked at the LNOB in the early 2000s putting in a surtitles system, which was sponsored by the Latvian National Opera Guild in the USA, the same guild that, in honour of its 30th anniversary, has sponsored this production of Hamlets.

All this to say that I had been in the opera house before, had even worked there, but this production was special. As I sat in the house during final rehearsals, every once in a while I’d get a disconnect, a feeling that something was unusual about this picture. Was I hearing a world-class opera with evocative sets and gorgeous costumes, sung in Latvian? I felt I had come full circle from 1983, when I was a fly on the wall in the booth of Toronto’s O’Keefe Centre, as it was then called when surtitles were first introduced to the world with Richard Strauss’s Elektra. It is worth noting that surtitles will celebrate their 40th anniversary next January 21, 2023. Working on Hamlets was a highlight of my 39-year career in surtitles.

All aspects of this Latvian Hamlets served to showcase Jānis Kalniņš’ music. Andris Eglītis, the set designer, had painted nine expressive drops that truly are works of art. I emphasize painted because he could easily have used projections or digital manipulation. Consider the difference between live music and recorded music: we like recorded music, but we love live music. I could feel Eglītis’ gobs of paint viscerally. Kristine Pasternaks’ costumes kept to a generally muted grey-white palette, except for the top of Act II, where the chorus was dressed in Shakespeare-like costumes, but in neon turquoise and lime green. And they danced the tango. It was magnificent!

The director, Kristine Wuss, was born in Potsdam after World War II to a Latvian mother and a German father. She spent her summers in Jūrmala and speaks Latvian well, albeit accented, as do most of us in the diaspora. Wuss very cleverly weaved period details from 1930s Latvia into her direction, details non-Latvians wouldn’t necessarily catch, but which served the production and the plot. However, I wouldn’t call this production uniquely Latvian, because it is a universal story that has broad appeal. Wuss told the story in a uniquely Wuss way, which enhanced the understanding and enjoyment of the opera for all.

Ultimately, the star of this production was the music itself, at times reminiscent of Prokofiev, at times jazzy. Considered an avant-garde piece in 1936, Hamlets has stood the test of time and still sounds fresh in 2022. But I will let the musicians comment further on that topic, since my expertise lies elsewhere. Sponsored by the Latvian National Opera Fund of Canada, I was responsible for the surtitles in four languages: Latvian, English, French and German. Not all four are shown at once – Latvian and English are projected above the stage during the live performance, whereas French and German are available on an app downloaded to your mobile telephone.

The good news is that the opera will eventually be available on a digital platform, at least in Europe, and we hope to make it available in North America too. An even greater hope is that the world will see this new Hamlets enter the operatic canon and be produced by opera houses around the globe.

Gunta Dreifelds