Ambroise Thomas, Hamlet. Metropolitan Opera, 3/16/2010. Conducted by Louis Langrée with Simon Keenlyside (Hamlet), Marlis Petersen (Ophélie), Jennifer Larmore (Gertrude), James Morris (Claudius), Toby Spence (Läerte), David Pittsinger (Ghost). New production premiere by Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser.
In last Sunday’s Times, directors Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser defended Ambroise Thomas’s operatic Hamlet’s “dramatic integrity” and lack of sentimentality and bombast. That’s one way of looking at it. For my taste, despite some good set pieces and two compelling leading roles, the ratio of banal to memorable music is far too high, and Thomas’s dull score wears out its welcome well before the end of this (sometimes interminable) work. Caurier and Leiser’s production has some sincere and compelling acting. But visually it ranges from unmemorable to ugly, and is marred by some unnecessarily silly touches that could well be cut. While I enjoyed some of the performances a great deal and don’t exactly regret that I saw it, I feel no need to see Ambroise Thomas’s Hamlet ever again.
Of course for English-speaking audiences in particular this opera stands in the long shadow of Shakespeare’s play, which we all have studied and seen many times. Comparison is kind of interesting but tells us more about ourselves than it does about this opera. For my part I really miss Shakespeare’s supporting characters: Polonius and Horatio are there but not important enough to qualify as characters, and forget about Roz and Guil. More interesting is the loss of Fortinbras, which reduces the plot to basically a family drama. Thomas's Hamlet notoriously lives at the end, as is standard in French opera of this time. He doesn’t in this production, we’ll get to that.
Caurier and Leiser’s production is abstract, and the sets a few dingy rotating walls. Thus continues the reign of beige or beige-ish (these were pink) at the Met this year. These are some of the least compelling of their species, and to little other than give the singers something (ugly) to stand in front of. Maybe they looked better in one of the small opera houses from which this production originated? (This production has been around. It’s already on DVD.) Costumes are generic royal with occasional surreal bits. I guess the best thing about the design is that it brings the focus to the characters.
Simon Keenlyside gives a real tour de force in the leading role, and is probably the best thing about this production. Thomas gives Hamlet mostly austere music, with the exception of the notorious rollicking drinking song (if you know anything out of this opera, it’s probably this). Keenlyside does an excellent job capturing Hamlet’s shifts between ambivalence, grief, and rage, and is probably one of the best actors you’re going to see in opera today. His voice has also gotten warmer and rounder than I remember, and seems ideal for this music. He can pull off most of the production’s more audacious ideas, including an over-the-top quasi-mad scene that enlivens a dull chorus and reprise of the drinking song. But even he can’t sell Hamlet running into a wall at the end of the otherwise exciting Hamlet-Gertrude duet. (I remember this being a dumb moment in the DVD. Why hasn’t someone cut it by now?)
Marlis Petersen is new to me. I suppose this production was put on mostly for Dessay, but she is more than an adequate substitute, and in this high stuff probably far superior than Dessay these days. Her voice is slightly dark in color, unusual and interesting for a coloratura type, but clear and in tune (mostly). She doesn’t have much legato in her singing, which I didn’t mind here, but I can see why she specializes in German roles. Compared to Keenlyside, who can make a great deal of a small gesture, her performance was sometimes a bit blank, but considering that as a late substitute for Dessay she barely got a chance to rehearse at all and was probably really jet-lagged, she was impressively coordinated with everyone else. And her mad scene, given a bloody and dramatic staging involving (I think) a phantom pregnancy, was excellent and one of the highlights of the evening, the staging occasionally serving to distract from some strained high notes. The musically innovative coda, in which wordless offstage pre-Daphnis et Chloé nymphs coax Ophelia into the river, however, seemed dramatically unnecessary and only served to remind me that I missed Lost AGAIN. Also that I would rather be seeing Rusalka.
But Caurier and Leiser? When you speak admiringly of Thomas’s restraint and then stage a mad scene that involves a lot of self-mutilation and another that involves your protagonist pouring wine over his own head I begin to doubt your stated opposition to silly effects. Anyways, spicing up the boring parts is entirely justified, and desperately needed. The mixture of melodrama and sensitive lyricism is probably the most interesting thing here, even if the melodrama occasionally slides into the ridiculous and the lyric into the dull. These kinds of contrasts are, after all, the stuff 19th-century French operas are made of. (Oops, wrong Shakespeare there.)
Jennifer Larmore was best in Gertrude’s melodramatic moments, particularly her scene with Hamlet. (There is one circumstance in which I would see Hamlet again: Waltraud Meier as Gertrude. Not that that will ever happen, so I’m safe.) James Morris seriously needs to retire. He was wobbly but not horrible in Simon Boccanegra, but his singing here pained the ears. Toby Spence was a tenor, that’s about all I have to say, I could hear him but he is somewhat pale of voice. Läerte doesn't give one much to work with, I seem to recall an aria at the beginning but can say nothing of it. David Pittsinger as the Ghost outsang Morris by a mile, they should swap roles.
As for that ending? Thomas’s Act V takes place at Ophelia’s funeral (after the gravedigger’s episode, though there is no Yorick) and does not resemble Shakespeare very much. Apparently inspired by the previous year’s premiere of Verdi’s Don Carlos, the libretto gives the ghost a reappearance. Thomas later wrote an ending in which Hamlet dies. This production uses some parts of that ending, and, SPOILER, in a very short sword fight Laertes and Hamlet manage to kill each other. I did not find it convincing, but was glad that the opera was finally over. (It is three hours 20 minutes with only one intermission. Sorry, but that is too long when you’re Ambroise Thomas.)
Some booing at the end, surprisingly for conductor Louis Langrée as well as the directors. The conducting did not strike me as anything special, but neither did it seem that bad. There were quite a few clams from the brass in Act 1, but I don't think that was Langrée's fault. As for the production team boos, well, that seems to be our mode of opera(tion) these days.
Next: Emmanuelle Chabrier infamously quipped, “There is good music, there is bad music, and there is the music of Ambroise Thomas.” We will consider this statement further after a performance of Chabrier’s L'Étoile at the City Opera on Thursday. (It is thoughtfully given an early curtain, so I might be able to get home in time for Project Runway!)