Joseph Summer: Hamlet. © 2022 Navona Records LLC

CD Spotlight

Nobler in the Mind?

GIUSEPPE PENNISI finds Joseph Summer's 'Hamlet' a musical hodgepodge

'... almost in late Romantic style.'


Shakespeare's Hamlet inspired several opera composers - not for the philosophical questions it raises but for its highly dramatic plot and stage action. The best known of the operatic renderings is Ambroise Thomas' 1868 five-act melodrama; it is designed as a grand opéra in the French style with emphasis on a romantic love story; this entails eliminating several Shakespeare characters, adding ballet and giving a totally different slant to the action. Yet, it still circulates, mostly in France.

There are at least three Italian operas based on Hamlet. All three are quite faithful to Shakespeare's plot and spirit and are titled Amleto. Their authors are: Franco Faccio (whose 1868 Amleto has a masterpiece libretto by Arrigo Boito), Saverio Marcadante (on a libretto by Felice Romani, a two act opera seria that had its debut in 1822 and where the Prince of Denmark is a mezzo) and Domenico Scarlatti (whose Baroque opera had only a few performances). Faccio's Amleto deserves to be revived and this may happen soon in an Italian major theatre.

More recently, in 1968, the prolific British late Romantic and dodecaphonic composer Humphrey Searle composed a Hamlet that had a couple of productions in US university theatres.

This three CD set offers a new Hamlet by American composer Joseph Summer, who is many things - composer, world traveler and founder of the Shakespeare Concerts. These are just a few of the hats he wears. He worked for the BBC for several years. A longtime Navona Records artist, Summer has released nine albums in his Shakespeare Concerts series, which highlight the works of the Bard in new settings and contemporary arrangements.

The CD set is quite spartan. There is no libretto - which is presumably by Summer himself: the opera is in three acts, not in five as in the tragedy. There is no biographical data about the fifteen artists - mostly British but quite a few from Eastern Europe. It was performed and recorded in Ruse, a town in northern Bulgarian with an elegant opera house and a population of 165,000. The Ruse Symphony Orchestra is conducted by Leo Hussain - a young British conductor who has mainly concentrated on opera and is having a successful career. Jazz ensembles supplement the orchestra: the mousetrap piano trio and a horn soloist. Summer's basic idea is to transpose Shakespeare's play into contemporary opera arrangements.

Listen — Joseph Summer: Prelude (Hamlet)
(NV6396 CD1 track 1, 0:00-0:27) ℗ 2022 Navona Records LLC :

Is it a successful attempt? Hard to say. This has some jazz but quite little modern music as now generally intended. The score is more similar to those of the late nineteenth century operatic composers with a lot of declamation, a large symphonic support and also specific musical numbers.

Listen — Joseph Summer: To be or not to be (Hamlet Act II)
(NV6396 CD2 track 7, 0:00-0:48) ℗ 2022 Navona Records LLC :

The jazz part appears on the second CD, where the well-known To be or not to be monologue is an arioso with, in the final part, mostly horn and piano accompaniment, almost in late Romantic style.

Listen — Joseph Summer: Follow my mother (Hamlet Act III)
(NV6396 CD3 track 14, 0:00-0:54) ℗ 2022 Navona Records LLC :

I do not know if, after the debut in Ruse, this work will be revived elsewhere. Its stage production will be quite expensive. Musically it is a hodgepodge.

Copyright © 27 July 2022 Giuseppe Pennisi,
Rome, Italy








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