I’d never seen Ambroise Thomas’ Hamlet, nor was I acquainted with the music, so you could say I started
with a clean slate. I liked it.
Now, if you’re a raging Anglophile and/or don’t like anyone
messing with your Shakespeare, don’t bother with this. I think it’s closer to
the Dumas version of the story. Let’s just say, Thomas and the librettists took
“liberties” with the plot and characters. This may explain why the opera didn’t
inspire much interest early on – like for a century!
If the goal was to pare down the cast and eliminate the
Bard’s web of plots however, this is a successful tale. The music was pleasant
enough, although not memorable. I didn’t come out humming any melodies.
Bodies are strewn across a bare stage near the opera's end.
The production was spare and somber. The sets were high, dark
curving walls that moved to provide a plethora of backdrops, often leaving the
stage almost barren. This did allow for some effective lighting, throwing huge
shadows on the walls. It probably played better on the screen than live on
stage at the Met.
The chorus costumes were dark hues: black, grey, brown. Only
the principals wore any color, and that was effective. While you usually don’t
see stark white on stage, both the ghost of Hamlet’s father and Ophelia were
dressed so. Of course, it made perfect sense for the ghost. Ophelia looked as
if she was ready to be wed at a moment’s notice, which she was. And it showed
up the blood really well. Oh yes, she doesn’t drown in the lake. She stabs
herself. Several times. And of course, she negotiates quite an extended
coloratura ‘mad scene’ at the same time.
Simon Keenlyside as Hamlet
One of the best qualities of the production was the acting
and singing of the British baritone Simon Keenlyside as Hamlet. He was
especially effective in this HD version which allows for those magnificent close-ups.
He’s an astonishing presence on stage.
The coloratura Marlis Petersen was brought in after the
original Ophelia canceled because of illness. The German soprano finished a run
of Medea in Vienna
and hopped a plane for New York with barely a week’s notice. She made for a very fragile and introspective Ophelia,
but perhaps not as “mad” as expected from Natalie Dessay.
Mezzo Jennifer Larmore
I particularly enjoyed the performance of mezzo-soprano
Jennifer Larmore as Gertrude. She’s Claudius’ accomplice in this version (as is
Polonius by the way). Her blood red, and mustard green/brown costumes were
richly conspiratorial. She’s a scene stealer.
Toby Spence’s Laertes was a tenor
relief in a sea of baritones and basses.
Metropolitan Opera's studio control for HD transmissions
I understand this HD experiment has drawn great audiences.
Even the Huntington Cinemark audience has grown, perhaps doubled in attendance
since the first offering I saw last fall. One of the strong attractions is the cinematic
quality, but it also has its drawbacks.
You see the singers in close-up, something that would never
happen in the opera house. However, the voices are transmitted through audio
equipment, and thus always heard and always in balance. You see only the
director’s focus, rather than the expanse of stage of a full production. So in
a sense these HD offerings are not totally “live.”
These qualities are particularly welcomed by younger
audience members, accustomed to the wonders of cinematography. This may or may
not result in a new audience for live opera however. It might also divert
attention and funding from local productions. Only time will tell.
But don't take my word for it. See for yourself. There's an encore presentation Wednesday, April 14 at 6:30 pm.. The final offering of this season is Renée Fleming starring in Rossini's Armida - another unknown to me. Check 'em out!