Ambroise Thomas’ opera returned to the Metropolitan this season after an absence of 115 years. Its reappearance was only the company’s 10th staging of the work. On March 27th the opera was telecast in HD. Hamlet is so far on the fringe of the repertoire that if it were a geographical location it would be Alice Springs. There’s a reason why it’s not often performed. It isn’t very good. The Met’s production provided the only valid justification for mounting it – a great singing actor in the title role.
Simon Keenlyside’s singing and acting gave the opera more than Thomas put it to it. In short a revelatory performance. His outburst at the end of the second act when he feigns madness after Claudius has confirmed his guilt in his brother’s (Hamlet’s father) murder was overpowering. If you were listening on the radio at least 90% of Keenlyside’s art was hidden. Keenlyside drenched himself in blood red wine letting everyone know that he really knew what his uncle had been up to. Future audience’s are lucky that this wonderful portrayal has been preserved. Musically and dramatically the ensemble which concludes this act is the best number in the opera, though it was hard to concentrate on anything or anyone but Hamlet.
But there’s only so much that one man can do. What was left was about three hours of well orchestrated and well conducted mostly mediocre music. The opera has a major part for the soprano, Ophélie. This part was intended for Natalie Dessay, but she was unable to make it. Her replacement was Marlis Petersen. The German soprano is best known for Lulu and Zerbinetta. Her assumption of this role on very short notice was very well received, but she’s really not the right singer for Ophélie. Furthermore, she struggled with her high notes during this performance and was off pitch through most of her first act duet with Hamlet.
Ophélie has a long mad scene in the fourth act. it’s almost as long as Lucia’s, but seemed longer. (The ballet which precedes the Mad Scene was not performed.) One critic has called the scene “floridly inconsequential”. There was a lot of lyric difficulty written into it without much reward for the listener.
Veteran mezzo-soprano Jennifer returned to the Met after a four year absence as Hamlet’s guilty mother. Brian Large’s close-ups were not kind to her. Vocally she easily filled the demands of her role, but it does not contain much of musical interest. James Morris, closing in on 900 Met performances, still has some voice left, though it’s not the mighty instrument of his best years. Their second act duet was vigorously performed.
Tenor Toby Spence was Laerte. He has a light voice that was not stressed by his role. This production marked his Met debut. The two grave diggers had a few bars of interesting music. Bass-baritone Richard Bernstein who has been singing small roles at the Met for almost 15 years was impressive as the first grave digger.
Louis Langrée is obviously committed to this work and he conducted it with precision and power. The Met orchestra as is now customary played brilliantly.
This production uses neither of the two endings written by Thomas. Keenlyside said in an interview during the sole intermission that the Met was using the ending written by Thomas for the first Covent Garden production of this opera; but he was mistaken. In that version the ghost does not reappear and Hamlet kills himself after killing the King. The French version ends with Hamlet alive and king. The Met uses a version devised in 1982 by Richard Bonynge which feature a return of the ghost and Hamlet’s death from a mortal wound from Laerte. He dies after killing the king. Hamlet has already dispatched Laerte.
Directors Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser set the scene in the 19th century. Along with set designer Christian Fenouillat they dispensed with furniture except for a banquet table on which Hamlet went berserk as described above. Hamlet went barefoot in the first act; whether this was a result of a budget cut or had some arcane significance is uncertain – at least to me.
This change of time and Spartan decor worked fine as the opera has only a nominal connection with Shakespeare’s play. The only reason to do this opera other than as a vehicle for the great Keenlyside is that opera companies are desperate for new works. Because no living composer seems to be able to write an opera that people will spend hundreds of dollars to hear, the Met and other major houses resort to the past in the hope of finding a neglected masterpiece. What they typically discover is that neglect usually has a simple explanation.