Milton’s famous dictum – “they also serve who only stand and wait” – came to mind while experiencing the existential confusion of the duo at the heart of a new opera, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.
Composer and librettist Herschel Garfein’s work musicalizes Tom Stoppard’s 1966 play, which took two minor characters at the edges of Hamlet and gave them universal anxieties – “What is my part in great events?”, “What am I doing here?”, “Do I really understand what’s going on?”
Rosencrantz is receiving a fully-staged (and sensationally good) production with piano accompaniment at the Seagle Music Colony in Schroon Lake, N.Y. as part of the summer opera training program’s expanded initiative to support new works. Last year, the program produced a memorable staging of Mack and McGuire’s Roscoe based on the William Kennedy novel, which went on to have an orchestral, semi-staged production with Deborah Voigt and the Albany Symphony.
|A scene from the opera Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Photo/Seagle Music Colony
In Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are two school friends of the prince, hired to spy on him and deliver him to an assassin. They prove to be unequal to the task and their eventual fate is announced with the dry line, “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead.”
With a healthy nod to Beckett’s existential Waiting for Godot, Stoppard created two bewildered bumblers trying to make sense of events whipping past their eyes – a prince who pretends to be mad, a murder mystery surrounding the previous king, a vengeful current king, a queen with loose morals. He also brilliantly created major characters out of the Player and his “tragedians” – the troupe that arrives at court and mimes the circumstances of the former king’s death – who deliver witty comments on acting and theater, artifice and reality.
Garfein’s intriguing music generally follows a narrative line since R and G are mostly passive characters commenting on the action, and he delightfully uses vaudeville style in “Your Uncle is the King of Denmark.” In addition, “Guildenstern’s Aria,” “The Butterfly Song” and the final chorus, “Was It All for This?” are particularly striking.
It’s the first staging for Rosencrantz, which has had excerpts produced, and it’s to be hoped the opera will have further development. While Garfein and director Richard Kagey’s staging have beautifully mined the absurdist humor in the play, the dramatic drive sags in the second act, with, for instance, one too many ruminations upon death.
A bit more exposition for those not familiar with Hamlet would help audiences through what seems to be a puzzling plot. In the final duel scene, for instance, Hamlet’s opponent Laertes’s name isn’t mentioned until halfway through the scene, much less why he’s dueling. Although any theater work can be enjoyed on its own, reading at least a synopsis of Hamlet before seeing the opera will help.
In this production, the ensemble acting is particularly strong. The July 22, 2017 cast featured Joshua Cook as a genial Rosencrantz, Zachary Crowle as a brooding Guildenstern, Andrew Henry as a charismatic Player, Kevin Bryant as a magnetic, arrogant Hamlet and Bridget Cappel as the sweet-voiced boy actor Alfred.
Clearly the cast had strong training in farce and absurdist styles, and director Kagey’s blocking created some beautiful stage pictures. Andrew Bisantz conducted with verve as master pianists Jennifer McGuire and José Meléndez negotiated the fast-moving score with enormous skill. Jim Koehnle’s set is simple but effective, with a barn-board backdrop, steps creating several levels and some clever projection work (Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” soliloquy is projected on the backdrop while he mimes it downstage). Of Therese Tresco's Elizabethan costumes, the colorful plume on the Player's dramatic black hat was particularly effective.
In the beginning, R and G note that “we were sent for,” but in the end they bungle their mission completely. Let’s hope that any of us responds to a similar call with more aplomb – but, of course, nothing is a sure thing.