A gender-bending Hamlet silent film with live music screens Sept. 14

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Lindsey Hadlock

What if Hamlet were actually … a woman?

The restored 1921 German silent film “Hamlet,” starring Denmark’s most famous film actress, Asta Neilsen, as Hamlet, offers an answer. The film will screen Sept. 14 in Cornell’s Sage Chapel, accompanied by a new score featuring music by the sons of J.S. Bach and performed by The Filmharmonia Duo: Dennis James (organ), Michael Tsalka (harpsichord and piano) and Marija Bosnar (mezzo soprano). The performers will offer a pre-film lecture/discussion at 7:15 p.m., exploring the interaction of the music and the film; the film begins at 8 p.m. Free and open to the public.

Nielsen conceived of her film production as a major gender revision, with herself playing the part of Prince Hamlet, disguised by her mother Gertrude as a man to protect the family’s claim to power. Part of a golden age of German film adaptations of Shakespeare, the film was thought lost until a tinted print was found in 2005 and subsequently restored by a German film archive.

The National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., commissioned The Filmharmonia Duo to create the film’s new musical score, which they created from 18th-century classical keyboard music, with the addition of a mezzo-soprano to perform five songs within the score in keeping with the plot point of Hamlet as a woman. Filmharmonia’s focus is on historical music and instruments, period repertoire and authentic performance styles.

James has played a pivotal role in the international revival of silent films with live music for more than 40 years and now tours with his Silent Film Concerts production company. Tsalka is active as a concert and recording artist, virtuosic on the harpsichord, fortepiano, clavichord, square piano, chamber organ and modern piano.

The event is sponsored by the Department of Music, Cornell Cinema and the Westfield Center for Historical Keyboard Studies.


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