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My Long-Awaited Hamlet, Day 55

April 3, 2010

Wake up entirely too early, hang out with Amy Wooden in homeroom, and walk across the hall with her for English class with Miss Kelley.  I don’t remember most of my routines from high school, no less from my Freshman year, but the beginning to each of those days adds now to my persona and partly bears responsibility for this blog.  Thanks to confidence earned by having great friends like Amy and a teacher who recognized and encouraged my abilities, I enrolled for the duration of my stay at Cherry Hill High School West in my only advanced placement course, English AP.  Somehow by the time of the AP test, I had turned into the geek who left the long and thorough exam whispering to another friend, “That was fun.”  She thought I had lost my mind.

In fact, I gained more than I expected from my pursuit of great classics and solid compositional skills.  In my senior year, I studied with Barbara O’Breza, now the supervisor of English at Princeton Regional High School, then a formidable friend of the red pen.  I attribute most of my artistic growth as a writer to her influence, as well as my love of British literature and a surprising introduction to opera.  When teaching Hamlet, she assigned individual papers with several available topics to cross disciplines, including the topic of Hamlet the opera.  Already a gargantuan choir nerd, I couldn’t simply research and write about the opera: I had to hear it.  Sadly, DVD’s and the Internet didn’t really exist in its present form, so I instead took a personal field trip to our local Blockbuster music which, at the time, allowed anyone to sit and listen to any CD they chose before buying.  I couldn’t afford to purchase it then but sat and listened to the entirety of all  five acts of Ambroise Thomas‘s opera, and I still own the box set I later purchased with June Anderson as Ophélie.  Ophélie’s mad scene remains my favorite operatic moment, and although I foolishly wanted to sing coloratura upon its hearing, I also discovered the magic of well-sung, dramatically-engaged opera for the first time.

Imagine my delight last night when, while finally watching Hamlet onstage for the first time, I experienced a gloriously acted, imaginatively directed, and deftly sung production at the Metropolitan Opera.  Occasionally to my detriment, I like surprises and rarely know the identity of the directors (or plot, if I can avoid it) before seeing a work of opera or theatre.  My friends Raven and Justine must have heard an audible gasp when I opened the program to see Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser listed as the directors of the production.  Last night I had the extreme fortune of seeing the first opera I had ever heard, as envisioned by the men who directed the first opera in which I ever performed professionally.  As proof, I offer up an image from my professional operatic debut, in Patrice Caurier’s and Moshe Leiser’s Jenufa at the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, South Carolina in 1998.

Jenufa 1998

My first mob scene

My only regret?  I had so looked forward to seeing and hearing Natalie Dessay as Opélie though unfortunately, she withdrew early in March due to illness.  Although replaced by Marlis Petersen who did not at all disappoint, Natalie Dessay set some almost impenetrably high expectations in her worldwide performances in the same production, as one can easily see in this youtube video of my favorite part of the mad scene.

As for Marlis Petersen, she instantly performed with present, clear, and unforced motives and voice.  She and the remarkably talented Simon Keenlyside as Hamlet make a strong and believable case for both their shared and ill-fated love.  Appropriately, her most stunningly sung moment arrives at the tail of the mad scene, when Ophélie reprises the most famous line from their duet, “Doute de la lumière,” as she lies upstage on the ground, just before dying.  Although only a speculation, it seemed more than coincidental that Marlis Petersen’s most glorious phrases involved positions in which she couldn’t possibly crane her head and neck forward, her one consistently distracting characteristic in an otherwise flawlessly delivered role.  Otherwise stately, beautiful, and incredibly talented, she filled in perfectly for an almost irreplaceable Natalie Dessay who I had hoped to see in this production for years.

Featured often on a blog about baritones called Barihunks, I wondered about the man as famous for his handsomeness as for his acting.  Indeed, Simon Keenlyside falls into the rare category of people whose abilities and intelligence add enormous appeal to an otherwise somewhat attractive physique.  This man is one of the best actors opera has to offer, and I would love to see him featured even more frequently at the Met.  A seamless thread of concentrated intent and character, Keenlyside keeps the audience glued to and engaged throughout a  considerably long performance.  His “To be or not to be” explored not only the question of existence in intent but also in voice.  Using a more hollow straight tone intertwined with crescendos of tone, emotion, and dynamic, he proved himself as brilliant a musician as an actor.  More impressive for its beauty than its size, Simon Keenlyside’s well-paced vocal ability and technique satisfyingly traversed the nuances of Thomas’s score, daring to sing softly when possible while not once sounding overpowered by a sometimes rather full orchestra.

Conducted by a clear, precise, and compelling Louis Langrée, the orchestra both followed the maestro and played with expression and accuracy.  I love watching a good conductor who knows when to control and when to allow the players their freedom, as Langrée has mastered well.  The french horn and saxophone soloists both drew the audience’s ears to their sonorous and moving lines.  In few instances, the orchestra did overpower the singing, during a portion of the duet between Ophélie and Hamlet and again in an unusual drive-by singing of the chorus as they crossed down and offstage left on their way to the feast; however, I believe that atypical fault lies with the set and direction.

Again, the Hamlet and Ophélie duet should present one of the earliest moving moments in the opera.  Staged partially lying on the floor in front of an acoustically dead spot in front of one of the set’s seemingly unpredictable concave walls, Keenlyside and Petersen’s beautiful voices also laid buried beneath the orchestra.  Concave, movable, and constantly repositioned, the set consisted of walls that must have made the acoustics playful at best when one could sing upstage and bounce the sound back to the audience and frustrating at worst during surprisingly echoed scenes that distracted from the singers’ skillful delivery of the music.  Despite the set, the direction together with the singers worked seamlessly together to create a fearless, well-integrated, and brilliantly-acted production.  The placement of the flowers and the chandelier hanging almost to the floor added extra madness to Ophélie’s death.  Equally as well integrated, the same flowers mixed with the dirt shoveled onto the stage for the graveyard scene, complete with a cleverly designed grave-site built by tearing up the floorboards onstage.

Most admirably, the performers worked with no diva-like fear of singing with dirt hovering in their face, as did the gravediggers, or in strange positions while dying and convulsing out of madness.  On the contrary, Jennifer Larmore as Gertrude truly confounded me at first, when her first scene with Ophélie sounded completely different from everything which followed, otherwise confident, convincing, virtuosic, and sung with excellent French diction.  A colleague told me after the opera that Jennifer Larmore still suffers from nerves onstage and although I cannot find a single article online to back up that theory, it would explain a shockingly inconsistent first scene complete with nonstop gasping.  However, from her second scene immediately afterwards with Claudius throughout the remainder of the evening, she flawlessly portrayed a majestic but guilty Gertrude with the same fearlessness and excellent technique and voice as did her colleagues.  In one of my favorite moments, Caurier and Leiser staged a breathtakingly exciting scene where Hamlet finally confronts her, and neither Keenlyside nor Larmore hold back an ounce of energy as they end the scene on the floor amidst the wooden pieces of a destroyed portrait.

Though scooping unnecessarily and therefore crooning a little, James Morris sang in otherwise excellent voice and presented a better than average operatic portrayal of Claudius.  Regrettably, in such an outstanding cast who can likely hold their own in any genre of acting, his old school presentation seemed a little two dimensional and boring for my taste.  On the other hand, Claudius typically woos Gertrude and no one else, so perhaps his character’s staleness added to Hamlet’s plight.

Matthew Plenk as Marcellus and Liam Bonner as Horatio convincingly played off one another’s energy as the guards who had seen the ghost of Hamlet’s father.  Matthew Plenk especially had an excellent balance between his breath and his vocalism, creating rare and impressively legato recitative.  David Pittsinger as the ghost towered over Hamlet and inspired both fear and comfort to his mourning son in reliably good and full voice.  British tenor Toby Spence as Laërte, almost forgotten by the final act, sang with bright but connected fervor and worked well as a foil to the already completely overwhelmed Hamlet.

Early in the first act, I worried when my friends in the chorus marched downstage amidst search lights and sang as if pledging allegiance (literally hand over heart) in standard park and bark fashion, while singing their song of celebration to Claudius and Gertrude.  Thankfully the direction eventually gave them the opportunity to showcase their new and improved sound, most notably during the funeral scene in the final act.  The women’s chorus particularly sounded stunning while floating well-blended high notes behind their veils, and the entire choir sang warm and beautifully so late in the evening.

Admittedly, a complex story such as Hamlet inspires a somewhat extensive opera and then a rather lengthy blog post.  By now anyone having read thus far must know that the opera I had waited so long to see was well worth the effort, thanks to a stunning cast, exceptional directors, and the very good company of my friends.  If you like opera or Hamlet or think you might like either, go see this production.  The Metropolitan Opera offers only two more performances of Hamlet on Monday, April 5 and Friday, April 9.  One final Live in HD encore performance remains in the US and in Canada on Saturday, April 24.

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