Composer: Ambroise Thomas
Conductor: Louis Langrée
Director: Patrice Caurier & Moshe Leiser
Hamlet: Simon Keenlyside
Ophelie: Marlis Petersen
Claudius: James Morris
Gertude: Jennifer Larmore
Laerte: Toby Spence
NOT AGAIN! Although the change had been announced with some notice this time, it did not make the disappointment easier to swallow: much anticipated French soprano Natalie Dessay was not going to reprise her celebrated role of Ophélie because of an ill-timed illess, and lesser-known but reputedly magnetic Marlis Petersen had been tapped to fill in for her... with 3 days to get ready! That being said, my all-consuming eagerness to see my fellow countrywoman in action had not stemmed from any nationalistic impulse but because she is particularly famous for throwing herself whole-heartedly into every mad scene that comes her way, Ophélie's being her calling card (with Lucia de Lammermoor not far behind). Since this was supposed to be her last performance of it at the Met, all we can hope is that she will get well soon enough and come back at a later date to deliver.
Shakespeare's plays have been adapted to the musical stage with various degrees of success. Hamlet being one of his most popular, it was unavoidable that it would receive an operatic treatment sooner or later. Everybody thinks they know Hamlet, but the fact is the play can be seen at so many different levels that the possibilities for interpretation are literally endless. With a straightforward story involving complex characters, it is nothing but a dream source of good old drama, and I was very curious to see how it would translate in the hands of a French opera composer.
Let's kill the suspense right now: the mad scene went really, really well. Marlis Petersen does not have the bigger-than-life quality of Natalie Dessay, but she turned out to be a fabulous Ophélie in her very own way. Her bright coloratura nicely complemented her chaste white dress and sweet demeanor, and she fully and beautifully immersed herself in the crucial scene, delicately bristling with vulnerability and hopelessness among the few scattered bouquets of white flowers, emblematic remnants of her cancelled wedding. I think it is fair to say that after smashingly conquering this ferociously challenging 20-minute aria, Marlis Petersen has established herself as a true opera gem, and all the better for us.
Being the world's most famous prince cannot be an easy task, but English star baritone Simon Keenlyside proved to be as equally talented an actor as a singer. His Hamlet was painfully touching in his brewing rage and incapacity to make a decision, his constant, nagging ambivalence well-displayed in his rich, nuanced voice and his elegant, tormented appearance. Despite Ophélie's tour de force, this is the multi-layered character who makes things happen by precisely not being able to act, and yesterday afternoon Simon Keenlyside's sensitive interpretation assuredly caught and kept everybody's attention.
The rest of the cast showed that they too had the right stuff to take part in this singer-centric production. Met regular James Morris gave a paradoxically dignified interpretation of Claudius and Jennifer Larmore was simply terrific as a ghastly Gertrude. Smaller roles were equally strong, and the Met's chorus made its presence vividly heard, as usual.
The overall quality of the singing was all the more emphasized that the set was drastically bare, apart from two moving walls and a few carefully symbolic props, and highly efficient in its minimalism. The color scheme was decidedly neutral and soft for the decor and the costumes. All the more to zero in on the characters' conflicts.
Ambroise Thomas was obviously not a first-rate composer, even though he was very successful in his time. Maestro Langrée nevertheless made the most of a score that inconspicuously, if not brilliantly, supported the libretto, the latter from which all of the Bard's eloquent language had unfortunately disappeared. But at least let's be grateful that this production presented the play's traditional ending as opposed to the happy one that was wrapping the original version of the opera. You can only take change so far, and what we saw was just enough.