Marlis Petersen and Simon Keenleyside in Hamlet. Photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera
“It’s a mystery” says this Hamlet as he launches into his “To be or not to be” aria. This is not Shakespeare’s Hamlet but Ambroise Thomas’ opera. Chances are you have not seen it or even heard of it. You may say that it is not in the top 100 most-produced-operas list. In fact that last time it was produced by the Metropolitan Opera in New York was in 1897. The mystery in this case is not the heart of Hamlet but why has Thomas’s work been ignored for so long.
It is on now and if you can’t dash out to Lincoln Center you can see it in a theatre near you on April 24, 2010 when the live telecast is reprised.
The opera has some great music and two great roles, one for a baritone (Hamlet) and one for a soprano (Ophelia). The role of Gertrude provides some excellent opportunities for a mezzo soprano but it is not as big a part as the other two.
The Metropolitan Opera has struck gold in all three roles. The kingpin is baritone Simon Keenlyside in the title role. He has a fine voice and looks the way you imagine Hamlet. He is a bit disheveled, distraught, confused, slim, agile and, yes, mysterious. In the hands of a less talented singing actor, Hamlet would look wooden and unsatisfactory. This is not a role for a baritone who strikes poses. It is wholly acted and sung performance of the first order.
Soprano Marlis Peterson was a last minute replacement for the more famous Natalie Dessay and was greeted with the usual fears and expectations. Will she bomb or will she give a memorable performance? Happily for her and the audience, Peterson does a marvelous job. She has a pure, clear, lustrous voice and made a superb Ophelia. Thomas gives Ophelia an extended Mad Scene that provides all kinds of opportunities for vocal and acting showmanship. Peterson does a masterly job as she struts around the stage stabbing her chest and slashing her wrists. There is blood all over her white dress as she finally collapses. Lucia di Lammermoor eat your heart out.
Mezzo soprano Jennifer Larmore was very impressive as Queen Gertrude, the woman who poisoned her husband, married his brother and was crowned queen of Denmark. Larmore gave a dramatic and terrific performance. The only small issue with her is that she has a bad habit when not singing of pursing her lips and sucking her cheeks in. Somebody should tell her to stop it. The hideous crown that they plopped on her head does not help her looks even though she is a very attractive woman.
Veteran bass James Morris sang the role of Claudius. It is not a particularly important role and I found his voice mostly colorless at the beginning. I liked him better near the end when his voice resonated much better.
Tenor Toby Spence presented an athletic and well-sung Laertes.
The quality of the production in general is questionable. Directors Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser have produced the opera in Barcelona with Keenlyside and Dessay and it is available on DVD. The current production was initially done for the Grand Theatre of Geneva. They seem to have cornered the market on Hamlet.
They have opted for a production with a minimal set and Lighting Designer Christopher Foray has chosen darkness over light any time of the day or night.
Except for the Mad Scene where a couch, a chandelier and some flowers are in evidence, for the rest of the performance there is almost no set to be seen. A couple of backdrops are put across the stage but what you see all too often is singing heads with nothing but darkness in the background. They could be in outer space or a bunch of ghosts for all one knows.
In other words there is very little context to what you are watching. The great confrontation between Hamlet and his mother in her bedroom could have taken place anywhere. She has no furniture at all except for a portrait of Claudius. Yet, when we get to the grave diggers’ scene, the directors feel it is necessary for a wheel barrow full of dirt to be shovelled on the stage.
As if that were not bad enough, Brian Large who directed the performance for the screen decided to avoid any long shots as if they are the bubonic plague. In the opening scene we see the huge chorus, mostly in the dark, but in an impressive array. After that it is largely head shots with nothing but darkness in the background. It is unnecessary and downright silly. We are watching the performance on the huge screen and we do not want a single head filling up most of it.
I should mention that they do avoid the “happy ending” of the original libretto.
Louis Langree conducted the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus.
Let’s hope we will not have to wait for another century for the next production.