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Hamlet comes to the Met

I first reviewed “Hamlet,” the opera, in Geneva in 1996 for Opera News, with Simon Keenlyside in the title role, Louis Langrée in the pit, and a production by Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser in which unnecessarily peripatetic, deliberately shabby set flats by Christian Fenouillat rolled around in a range of attempts to divide up the black void of the stage. Last night, I had the strange time-warp experience of seeing the same production, with Simon Keenlyside in the title role and Louis Langrée in the pit, except that this time, it was at the Metropolitan Opera. If Natalie Dessay, who sang the role of Ophelia in Geneva and was scheduled to sing it at the Met, hadn’t canceled, I would have almost forgotten where I was.

I didn’t go back and reread my thoughts from 14 years ago until after the show, and I was glad I waited, but didn’t feel my views about either the production or the opera had changed all that much. I have a fairly high tolerance for the particular brand of confection that is the music of Ambroise Thomas (due in part to a “Mignon” I saw in Santa Fe at an even more impressionable age), and, particularly at this point in my life, an even higher threshhold of tolerance for the various supposed outrages that are perpetrated on classic plays in their translation to opera. Which is to say: no, it’s not Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” but the outlines are recognizable, and there’s a lot of pretty music: deal with it.
(read more after the jump)

Thomas eliminates a number of the peripheral characters, opens with a chorus and the wedding of Gertrude and Claudius (but then goes back and gives us the ghost on the ramparts); expands Ophelia’s mad scene into something satisfactorily operatic, and (like Verdi in “Don Carlo”) waffled with the ending so that there exists both a happy and a sad version. The Met split the difference: the king’s ghost appears at the end as a deus ex machina, and Hamlet kills Claudius (start of the happy version); but then, instead of being crowned king himself, he dies (the sad version, written for Covent Garden a year later).

We’ve all grown. In 1996, Keenlyside was making his debut in the role; now, his voice is fuller and darker, so that the jolly drinking song he breaks into in Act II lies a little high for him, but he makes a wonderful dark chewy sound in the middle to lower ranges of the part. He still, however, incarnates the character’s heavy adolescent rage, though (if I remember correctly) he’s able to do so with greater economy of motion. Langrée, meanwhile, sounded more authoritative, though far from heavyweight; there was some scrambling in the brass fanfares from the balconies early on, but it was an exception to a very competent and engaged performance.

The production is perfectly adequate. I am not sure it’s lasted so long, and traveled so far (it’s also been seen at Covent Garden) on the strength of its quality alone; rather, it’s a viable, unoffensive production of a seldom-done opera ("Hamlet" was last staged at the Met in 1897) that is familiar to the soprano for whom the work is most often mounted, Dessay. Dessay’s cancellation was certainly a disappointment to many, but it cleared the way for Marlis Petersen, a German soprano who was both less polished and more vulnerable in the role than Dessay’s usual presentation these days. At first (in her Act I love duet with Hamlet) there was a threat of weakness, but she sang very beautifully in her mad scene (which sounds oddly exotic, faintly presaging Lakme’s Bell Song), with clear, jewel-like tones that were not only lovely but had a quality of innocence in keeping with the character. It wasn’t a barnstorming performance -- Dessay usually sets out to grab you from the first moment she’s on stage, for better or worse -- but ultimately an effective one.

Some of the supporting roles were excellent. David Pittsinger was properly stentorian as the ponderous and frequently one-note ghost; and the tenor Toby Spence (making his Met debut) was an impetuous, emotional Laertes with a penetrating voice. Casting Richard Bernstein and Mark Showalter as the Gravediggers certainly gave vocal heft to a very minor moment at the start of Act V (perhaps calculated to rouse and refocus the audience, after Ophelia’s mad scene, in the course of a long evening). Liam Bonner, who was part of the Wolf Trap Opera ensemble in 2008, stood out in another small role, Horatio.

Gertrude and Claudius were almost too skillfully cast with two singers possessed of considerable stage presence but past their vocal primes. James Morris was loud, patchy, and pushed as Claudius, and Jennifer Larmore was slightly shrill as Gertrude.

“Well, we’ve seen it,” said a colleague as we left the theater. To my ear, long though it is, it’s an opera worth hearing and seeing. And my “Hamlet” rediscovery this season is far from over; the opera is coming to the Washington National Opera on May 19th, though mercifully in a different production. This one, however, can be seen when the Met’s live HD broadcast to movie theaters takes place on March 27, with an encore presentation on April 14.

By Anne Midgette  |  March 17, 2010; 6:03 AM ET
Categories:  national , opera  
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Anne, glad you mentioned Liam Bonner, who was a standout in Wolf Trap's "Un giorno di regno". Also glad that we're getting a different production of "Hamlet" in Washington.

Posted by: JerryFloyd1 | March 17, 2010 11:14 AM | Report abuse

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