Saturday, March 27, 2010

Metropolitan Opera – Thomas’s Hamlet. March 27, 2010.

Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center – Dress Circle Seat F15 ($127.50).

Story. King Hamlet, Prince Hamlet’s father, was poisoned by his brother Claudius with the help of Queen Gertrude and Polonius (Ophelia’s father). As Claudius prepares to marry Gertrude, the King’s ghost appears to Hamlet to ask him to avenge his death. Hamlet stages a show during the banquet during which Claudius’s reaction convinces Hamlet that he is guilty. Bent on taking revenge, Hamlet ignores Ophelia who then commits suicide. As Ophelia’s funeral procession occurs, Hamlet kills her brother Laertes and is himself wounded. He manages also to kill Claudius before he dies from his wounds.

Conductor – Louis Langree; Claudius – James Morris, Gertrude – Jennifer Larmore, Prince Hamlet – Simon Keenlyside, Ophelie – Marlis Petersen, Laerte – Toby Spence.

I saw this opera by Ambroise Thomas several years ago in Covent Garden, and really liked it. So I jumped at the opportunity to see it again. It didn’t disappoint this second time around. My overall reaction is that the opera began a bit too slowly, but the pace picked up nicely after the intermission.

The story is based on the Shakespeare play depicting how being consumed with revenge can result in alienation and destruction. The “story” above doesn’t do justice to the complexity of the plot of the opera, and the opera itself changes and edits out many aspects of the play. We still get some of the more famous lines such as “Get thee to the nunnery” and “To be or not to be.” Of course I only found out about these lines from the subtitles as I don’t understand French.

The sets are quite minimal by Met standards. They are basically variations of two wall constructions that act as props for a castle and various rooms. Ophelia committed suicide by a river/lake, but there was no water. This is the only opera I recall that uses blood during the death scenes. While I don’t remember much of the Covent Garden performance, I do recall Ophelia bled when she died.

From where I sat, most of the singing was only adequate. The one exception is Ophelia whose voice carried well, even during the softer passages. When we saw Attila several weeks ago, we were seated a few rows closer to the stage, and wondered if there was sound enhancement. Well, today’s Program Notes says “without electronic devices”; that settles it for me. Another noteworthy thing is that none of the principal singers was overweight (well, Claudius a bit on the heavy side), so they worked quite well as actors also.

During the Covent Garden performance I thought the Ophelia “mad scene” during Act IV was a bit too long, even though it was quite moving. This time I didn’t think it was too long, but my reaction was less emotional. Perhaps knowing what is coming helps.

This opera premiered in Paris in 1868, and by the Met in the 1883-84 season (on tour in Cincinnati, and sung in Italian). It was last performed in 1897, more than 110 years ago. Given the quality of the composition, and how well-known Hamlet is, it is difficult to understand why. Changing taste of the audience alone doesn’t explain it. Indeed nowadays one can find Hamlet performed at various venues; herd mentality at work?

The New York Times review goes into quite a bit of detail about the various characters.

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