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For Simon Keenlyside, The Best of Times

New York
The Metropolitan Opera
03/16/2010 -  and March 20, 24*, 27, 30, April 2, 5, 9, 2010
Ambroise Thomas: Hamlet
Simon Keenlyside (Hamlet), Marlis Petersen (Ophélie), Jennifer Larmore (Gertrude), James Morris (Claudius), Toby Spence (Laerte), David Pittsinger (Le Spectre), Marcellus (Matthew Plenk), Liam Bonner (Horatio), Maxim Mikhailov (Polonius), Richard Bernstein (First Gravedigger), Mark Schowalter (Second Gravedigger)
Metropolitan Opera Chorus, Donald Palumbo (Chorus Master), Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Louis Langrée (Conductor)
Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser (Production), Christian Fenouillat (Set Designer), Agostino Cavalca (Costume Designer), Christophe Forey (Lighting Designer)

S. Keenlyside (© Marty Sohl)

In the March cover article of Opera News, Simon Keenlyside repeatedly used the phrase “when it’s your time.” He’s had many important times in his career but, surely, his appearances in New York, first in a lieder recital and then in the title role of Hamlet by Ambroise Thomas have to be among the best. For him and also for us. At the Met, it’s exactly the right time for a consummate singing actor, especially if he also happens to be a Verdi baritone, a species that, alas, seems to be rather thin on the ground.

Keenlyside made his Met debut in 1996 as Belcore in L’Elisir d’amore. Since then he has sung Olivier in Capriccio, Marcello in La Bohème, Papageno in The Magic Flute and Count Almaviva in Le Nozze di Figaro. In some ways Ambroise Thomas’s Hamlet is the most unlikely of vehicles for his most high profile yet Met appearance. The opera has not been performed at the Met by the Met since 1897. (In 1912, a production starring Tito Ruffo was presented at the old Met by the Philadelphia-Chicago Opera Company.) More recently, the New York City Opera, staged Hamlet in 1982, with Sherrill Milnes in the title role. The opera is certainly not as well known as Thomas’s Mignon.

This production was brought to the Met for two star turns by two star singers – Simon Keenlyside and, most especially, Natalie Dessay. Together, they have made rather a specialty of the piece since they debuted in the same production in 1996 in Geneva. They and the production then traveled to London and Barcelona where it was filmed for DVD release. Unfortunately, Natalie Dessay left the Metropolitan Opera cast two weeks before the first performance. She was replaced in rather dramatic fashion by Marlis Petersen, who arrived straight from an engagement as Medea in Vienna, a mere two days before opening night.

The production looked rather easy to transport. The set was simple, even minimalist, made up of two curved bare walls, which were moved around, sometimes by visible stagehands. The color scheme was muted, except for the brightly colored period costumes worn by most of the cast. Hamlet wore shabby modern dress and Ophélie a simple white gown. The set probably worked better in a smaller house than it did on the vast Met stage where it was virtually swallowed up.

Shakespeare’s Hamlet is, of course, one of the cultural icons of western civilization. Thomas’s Hamlet is emphatically not Shakespeare’s. The divergence is more of an issue for Anglo-American audiences who will search in vain for Hamlet’s grand soliloquies, those meditations on mortality and the significance of human life that have resonated over the centuries. “To be or not to be” as “Être ou ne pas être” does appear here, but it lacks the existential angst that makes it so timeless. It’s a shadow of its former self. The ending has also proved to be problematic. In Thomas’s original ending, Hamlet did not die but lived to be crowned king. In the Met production, Hamlet dies after stabbing Claudius to death. The librettists did not aim at fidelity to the original source.

In fact, they turned Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy into a melodrama. While the greatest moments in Shakespeare's play are Hamlet's soliloquies, the most dramatically compelling parts of Thomas’s Hamlet are the confrontations. Two stand out – the first between Hamlet and the ghost of his father and then (in the highlight of this performance) the extended scene between Hamlet and his mother, Gertrude, which takes up all of act three. In the latter, Hamlet is conflicted. His grief and his anger (at his mother but especially his uncle Claudius) for the murder of his father are in Keenlyside’s portrayal palpable. But Hamlet also loves his mother and has sworn to the ghost not to harm her as he revenges the crime by killing Claudius.

Neither the music nor the texts have the profundity to make Hamlet tragic in the Shakespearean sense. But Simon Keenlyside spared nothing – vocally, dramatically, even physically. He went flat out in order to make his performance moving and gripping. He has a lieder singer's sense of text and nuance – a gift for coloring words and establishing mood. In Keenlyside’s performance, nothing was lost or neglected. He made every note and word count. He combined this sensitivity to the small and subtle with an extraordinary theatricality in the best sense of the term. He was one hundred percent present and committed to the character, whether it involved throwing himself against a wall and actually bouncing off of it or drenching himself with blood red wine as he tried to evoke from Claudius evidence of his guilt. His physicality as a performer was always there – in his downcast posture and in a walk that became almost a shuffle. During the play within a play, designed by Hamlet to provoke a display of guilt by his uncle, Keenlyside lurked and skulked in the background. Despite the gripping goings on, our eyes were always drawn to him. But it was not an opera singer we were watching; it was Hamlet. After he learned of Ophélie’s death, a crowning blow to a life defined by loss, Hamlet’s will to live just seemed to ebb away. And so, after exacting his revenge on Claudius, he died, elevating melodrama to tragedy.

Marlis Petersen had a daunting task – a vocally challenging role, particularly the fiendishly difficult coloratura passages in her mad scene plus such a short amount of time during which to prepare. She sang with a lovely shimmering rich color in her middle range. But, in the mad scene, she had problems with the top, which was shrill. She also sang with spotty intonation and insufficient flexibility. And she was also oddly restrained. Her stage presence was rather stiff. Her singing seemed rather technical rather than a manifestation of her character. A character so clearly tragic should provoke our sympathy, but this was not the case. At least it was not so for me.

In contrast, Jennifer Larmore as Gertrude was superb vocally and dramatically. She was the only singer on stage who could approach Keenlyside’s level of engagement and thrilling dramatic intensity. James Morris as Claudius was vocally rough and patchy and sang with a pronounced wobble. But he was an effective actor, showing real grief and fear in his aria, “Je t’implore o mon frère,” seeking his dead brother’s forgiveness. As was the case with his performance as Wotan last season, he can certainly embody a role. In his Met debut, Toby Spence, was a fine Laerte, singing with ringing tone and acting convincingly. David Pittsinger was a marvelous ghost, a creepy spectral presence visually and vocally. Next door to the Met is the Vivian Beaumont Theater, where what is perhaps the greatest American musical, South Pacific, is being staged. Showing his amazing versatility, Pittsinger is alternating as Hamlet’s father’s ghost at the Met and as Emile de Becque in South Pacific.

The Met Chorus was predictably marvelous in its varying incarnations. The effect was majestic in the opening scene as the wedding guests processed across the stage. They were simply sublime in their haunting mourning chorus at Ophélie’s funeral. There are other lovely melodies in the opera-- notably the beautiful “Doute de la lumière” which Hamlet sings to Ophélie. She then takes up the melody which recurs, most poignantly in her funeral scene. There is also Hamlet’s “Comme une pâle fleur,” gorgeously sung by Keenlyside, as his character tottered toward death. Thomas was also rather good at inventive and at times stunning orchestral touches. The saxophone solo was the most memorable of these. The Met Orchestra under Louis Langrée gave a fine performance that illuminated the shifting instrumental textures.

A final word on a special treat. Although I am always mindful of the depth and talent of the Met’s roster of singers, a bit of luxury casting still retains its capacity to stun. Here, the small roles of the two gravediggers were sung by Richard Bernstein and Mark Showalter. Their richly contrapuntal lines reminded me of the two armed men, the guardians of Sarastro’s realm, in Die Zauberflöte. I remembered that during a performance earlier this season, I was also struck by the beauty of the singing by the two armed men. Sure enough, when I went back to look, I found that one of them was Richard Bernstein. He’s a terrific bass baritone, with a large sonorous voice that is even from top to bottom. And he has such presence. It’s a joy to hear him. I just wish we could hear more.

Arlene Judith Klotzko



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