Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Reviews

Rameau Grand Motets, BBC Proms

Best of the season so far! William Christie and Les Arts Florissants performed Rameau Grand Motets at late night Prom 17. Perfection, as one would expect from arguably the finest Rameau interpreters in the business, and that's saying a lot, given the exceptionally high quality of French baroque performance in the last 40 years.

Adriana Lecouvreur Opera Holland Park

Twelve years after Opera Holland Park's first production of Francesco Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur, the opera made a welcome return.

Back to the Beginnings: Monteverdi’s Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria at Iford Opera.

The Italianate cloister setting at Iford chimes neatly with Monteverdi’s penultimate opera The Return of Ulysses, as the setting cannot but bring to mind those early days of the musical genre. The world of commercial public opera had only just dawned with the opening of the Teatro San Cassiano in Venice in 1637 and for the first time opera became open to all who could afford a ticket, rather than beholden to the patronage of generous princes. Monteverdi took full advantage of the new stage and at the age of 73 brought all his experience of more than 30 years of opera-writing since his ground-breaking L’Orfeo (what a pity we have lost all those works) to the creation of two of his greatest pieces, Ulysses and then his final masterpiece, Poppea.

Schoenberg : Moses und Aron, Welsh National Opera, London

Once again, we find ourselves thanking an unrepresentable being for Welsh National Opera’s commitment to its mission. It is a sad state of affairs when a season that includes both Boulevard Solitude and Moses und Aron is considered exceptional, but it is - and is all the more so when one contrasts such seriousness of purpose with the endless revivals of La traviata which, Die Frau ohne Schatten notwithstanding, seem to occupy so much of the Royal Opera’s effort. That said, if the Royal Opera has not undertaken what would be only its second ever staging of Schoenberg’s masterpiece - the first and last was in 1965, long before most of us were born! - then at least it has engaged in a very welcome ‘WNO at the Royal Opera House’ relationship, in which we in London shall have the opportunity to see some of the fruits of the more adventurous company’s endeavours.

Rossini is Alive and Well and Living in Iowa

If you don’t have the means to get to the Rossini festival in Pesaro, you would do just as well to come to Indianola, Iowa, where Des Moines Metro Opera festival has devised a heady production of Le Comte Ory that is as long on belly laughs as it is on musical fireworks.

Gergiev : Janáček Glagolitic Mass, BBC Proms

Composed during just a few weeks of the summer of 1926, Janáček’s Slavonic-text Glagolitic Mass was first performed in Brno in December 1927. During the rehearsals for the premiere - just 3 for the orchestra and one 3-hour rehearsal for the whole ensemble - the composer made many changes, and such alterations continued so that by the time of the only other performance during Janáček’s lifetime, in Prague in April 1928, many of the instrumental (especially brass) lines had been doubled, complex rhythmic patterns had been ‘ironed-out’ (the Kyrie was originally in 5/4 time), a passage for 3 off-stage clarinets had been cut along with music for 3 sets of pedal timpani, and choral passages were also excised.

Donizetti and Mozart, Jette Parker Young Artists Royal Opera House, London

With the conclusion of the ROH 2013-14 season on Saturday evening - John Copley’s 40-year old production of La Bohème bringing down the summer curtain - the sun pouring through the gleaming windows of the Floral Hall was a welcome invitation to enjoy a final treat. The Jette Parker Young Artists Summer Showcase offered singers whom we have admired in minor and supporting roles during the past year the opportunity to step into the spotlight.

Glyndebourne's Strauss Der Rosenkavalier, BBC Proms

Many words have already been spent - not all of them on musical matters - on Richard Jones’s Glyndebourne production of Der Rosenkavalier, which last night was transported to the Royal Albert Hall. This was the first time at the Proms that Richard Strauss’s most popular opera had been heard in its entirety and, despite losing two of its principals in transit from Sussex to SW1, this semi-staged performance offered little to fault and much to admire.

First Night of the BBC Proms : Elgar The Kingdom

The BBC Proms 2014 season began with Sir Edward Elgars The Kingdom (1903-6). It was a good start to the season,which commemorates the start of the First World War. From that perspective Sir Andrew Davis's The Kingdom moved me deeply.

Le nozze di Figaro, Munich

One is unlikely to come across a cast of Figaro principals much better than this today, and the virtues of this performance indeed proved to be primarily vocal.

James Gilchrist at Wigmore Hall

Assured elegance, care and thoughtfulness characterised tenor James Gilchrist’s performance of Schubert’s Schwanengesang at the Wigmore Hall, the cycles’ two poets framing a compelling interpretation of Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte.

Music for a While: Improvisations on Henry Purcell

‘Music for a while shall all your cares beguile.’ Dryden’s words have never seemed as apt as at the conclusion of this wonderful sequence of improvisations on Purcell’s songs and arias, interspersed with instrumental chaconnes and toccatas, by L’Arpeggiata.

Nabucco at Orange

The acoustic of the gigantic Théâtre Antique Romain at Orange cannot but astonish its nine thousand spectators, the nearly one hundred meter breadth of the its proscenium inspires awe. There was excited anticipation for this performance of Verdi’s first masterpiece.

Richard Strauss: Notturno

Richard Strauss may be most closely associated with the soprano voice but this recording of a selection of the composer’s lieder by baritone Thomas Hampson is a welcome reminder that the rapt lyricism of Strauss’s settings can be rendered with equal beauty and character by the low male voice.

Saint Louis: A Hit is a Hit is a Hit

Opera Theatre of Saint Louis has once again staked claim to being the summer festival “of choice” in the US, not least of all for having mounted another superlative world premiere.

La Flûte Enchantée (2e Acte)
at the Aix Festival

In past years the operas of the Aix Festival that took place in the Grand Théâtre de Provence began at 8 pm. The Magic Flute began at 7 pm, or would have had not the infamous intermittents (seasonal theatrical employees) demanded to speak to the audience.

Ariodante at the Aix Festival

High drama in Aix. Three scenarios in conflict — those of G.F. Handel, Richard Jones and the intermittents (disgruntled seasonal theatrical employees). Make that four — mother nature.

Lucy Crowe, Wigmore Hall

The programme declared that ‘music, water and night’ was the connecting thread running through this diverse collection of songs, performed by soprano Lucy Crowe and pianist Anna Tilbrook, but in fact there was little need to seek a unifying element for these eclectic works allowed Crowe to demonstrate her expressive range — and offered the audience the opportunity to hear some interesting rarities.

The Turn of the Screw, Holland Park

‘Only make the reader’s general vision of evil intense enough … and his own experience, his own imagination, his own sympathy … will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars.

Plenty of Va-Va-Vroom: La Fille du Regiment, Iford

It is not often that concept, mood, music and place coincide perfectly. On the first night of Opera della Luna’s La Fille du Regiment at Iford Opera in Wiltshire, England we arrived with doubts (rather large doubts it should be admitted)as to whether Donizetti’s “naive and vulgar” romp of militarism and proto-feminism, peopled with hordes of gun-toting soldiers and praying peasants, could hardly be contained, surely, inside Iford’s tiny cloister?

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Reviews

Simon Keenlyside as Hamlet [Photo by Brent Ness courtesy of The Metropolitan Opera]
03 Apr 2010

Hamlet, New York

Design is rotten in Denmark, evidently — and in every other grand opera locale. “Palace” has come to mean “high school basement,” or that’s what they look like. “Royal” is synonymous with sleazy men in suits.

Ambroise Thomas: Hamlet

Hamlet: Simon Keenlyside; Ophélie: Marlis Petersen; Gertrude: Jennifer Larmore; Claudius: James Morris; Laërte: Toby Spence; Ghost of Hamlet’s Father: David Pittsinger; Gravediggers: Richard Bernstein, Mark Schowalter. Metropolitan Opera orchestra and chorus, conducted by Louis Langrée. Performance of March 30.

Above: Simon Keenlyside as Hamlet

All photos by Brent Ness courtesy of The Metropolitan Opera

 

Has it something to do with the coming to power of irresponsible corporate executives? The trend doesn’t make the works seem more immediate, more real to me — just tiresome to look at.

If you haven’t given a certain opera in 113 years, wouldn’t you want to sell the piece? Make it attractive to lure new audiences? I never want to see the Met’s production of Thomas’s Hamlet ever again, not if Melba returned in tip-top form to put it over — though in general, just say “obscure, once-popular overblown nineteenth-century vocal farrago” and I’m, like, totally there. (Robert le Diable anyone? But no — we can guess what modern directors would do with the ballet of Satanic nuns. Probably drag, and not even good drag.)

Hamlet_Petersen.pngMarlis Petersen as Ophélie

But Hamlet is supposed to take place in the Renaissance grandeur of Elsinore — and what do we get? Basement rooms in stained plaster, barf-green doors, bare brick pilasters, the ugliest battlements this side of the Brooklyn Navy Yard. I don’t know where the designers went to school, but I’d be ashamed to put a sock hop in here, never mind the festivities of a new-married king. Hamlet’s self-dramatizing misbehavior doesn’t stick out in such digs — he’s no stranger than everything else, and Claudius and Gertrude are sordid in good company. The production is by some guys named Caurier and Leiser, borrowed from Geneva, whom we hope have outstayed their work visa and been deported. The dreadful sets are by Christian Fenouillat, the uncomfortable and unattractive costumes by Agostino Cavalca — well, at least they are better than Miuccia Prada’s swishing Attila shmattas.

The designers of the Met’s Trovatore and Tosca and Lucia — and Don Giovanni, for that matter — were similarly glamour challenged. The last truly elegant and appropriate set I can recall in a Met production was that for Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette. And I don’t much like Roméo et Juliette, and no one who appears in that set ever seems to sing anything there but Gounod. It is very tiresome.

In Hamlet, we finally get an attractive stage picture in Act IV (yes!): Ophélie crouches in a grand upholstered sofa near a (lowered) crystal chandelier (representing a frozen fountain?), but as the scene calls for a pond in which she can drown herself, this, too, is puzzling. She spends the scene slashing her wrists and breasts with a knife and the chandelier rises to the ceiling, symbolizing her unlikely — isn’t suicide a mortal sin? — ascent to heaven. I’m not making this up, you know.

By 1868, the phenomenon of French grand opera was winding down, at least in terms of Paris premiers — though Verdi’s Aida, which topped them all, was still to come, and the grandest opera composed by a Frenchman, Berlioz’s Les Troyens, would not reach L’Opéra till well into the twentieth century. It was in 1868 that Ambroise Thomas, fresh from the triumph of his Goethe-based opéra-comique, Mignon, which would hold the stage for a hundred years, produced Hamlet, a late but at the time entirely successful gasp of grand opera.

HAMLET_Larmore_as_Gertrude_2133.pngJennifer Larmore as Gertrude

Hamlet has all the grand opera trappings: big star parts, big solo display pieces (well, at least one — Ophélie’s famous mad scene), unusual orchestrations, spectacular effects, small but effective minor roles (Thomas pounced on Shakespeare’s merry Gravediggers), and a ballet — omitted at the Met. Just as well: It’s a long evening, and with only one intermission in five acts, it feels even longer.

Hamlet was a great hit in Paris and elsewhere, but it has always had problems in the English-speaking world. We know Hamlet and we’re not sympathetic to changes in the plot that undercut the familiar story. The same attitude kept Verdi’s Macbeth a rarity hereabouts until the mid-twentieth century — Othello and Romeo and Juliet worked as operas for us because the stories were Italian melodramas to begin with and suited to operatic treatment. Too, Verdi had Boito for his Otello and Falstaff, and Boito knew his Shakespeare.

Thomas’s librettists, Carré and Barbier, who had already done the musical number on so many classics, retained the Ghost and the Gravediggers and the most famous soliloquy — they, and Thomas, knew enough to set “To be or not to be” as declamation and not make a verse chanson out of it — but they omit Hamlet’s wilder feats of mayhem, the murder of Polonius, the trip to England, the duel with poisoned swords. Laertes has been shredded and Polonius all but eliminated — Ophélie goes mad not because her lover has slain her father but merely for love — which Shakespeare might not think credible but is business-as-usual in opera. Then, in building up the soprano and mezzo roles to grand opera stature, the focus on Hamlet’s own dilemma has been watered down. Gertrude’s guilt is not, as in Shakespeare, ambiguous — here she states it, is obsessed with it. And the Ghost won’t stay dead — like a figure in an American horror flick, he keeps popping up, is even responsible for the slaying of his brother. So who needs Hamlet the prince?

A soprano vehicle back in the day — no one but Ophélie gets a major scena — Hamlet is not entirely without interest, and might even be a hit with attractive sets and if cast to strength, which it has not been. You can’t do grand opera on two stars and two fadeouts. It needs better than that. These are virtuoso roles, so designed. We’ve had such sleepwalking Aida casts over the years that we’ve forgotten how singer-driven grand opera used to be — and, at the Met, Aida at least has gaudy sets!

HAMLET_Keenlyside_and_Pittsinger_1298.pngDavid Pittsinger as the Ghost of Hamlet’s Father and Simon Keenlyside as Hamlet

The finest singing of the night came, unquestionably, from the most unexpected player, Marlis Petersen, replacing an indisposed Natalie Dessay as Ophélie. Dessay was a prime mover and motivation to bring the opera here — no one else would have thought of doing it, and it has always been a soprano vehicle at the Met, for Sembrich and Melba in the old days. (The last time New York saw it, at the City Opera some years ago, it was a vehicle for Sherill Milnes, who performed the title role splendidly, a Shakespearean Trifecta with his Iago and Macbeth.)

Dessay’s abrupt withdrawal from a role she was planning to drop from her repertoire in any case turned out to be a happy occasion. Marlis Petersen has one of the most beautiful and accurate coloratura sopranos now before the public, a cool, clear, easy sound like a rippling stream. One or two top notes seemed forced, but in such a way — and at such a point, on both the broadcast and in the house three days later — as to suggest these were a characterization choice, meant to imply her gathering hysteria. Her trill is imperfect but her runs are ravishing; nothing is tossed away with that “I can’t be bothered to sing each note, I’m acting” shrug so common in this repertory. I would love to hear her in Lucia, Puritani, Sonnambula, Lakme — but, alas, she seems herself to prefer more modern music requiring far more precise musicianship, such as Lulu (which she will sing here in May) and contemporary operas by Reimann, Henze and Trojahn.

In the play, Queen Gertrude’s remarks tend to be brief and on target — her only poetic flights come in describing Ophelia’s death, of which speech she is robbed in the opera in order to turn it into the soprano’s mad scene. Nonetheless, a secure dramatic mezzo can make quite an effective thing of the queen here, and that Jennifer Larmore, still handsome and dressed to kill, did not do so must be attributed to a dullness, a tunelessness, that afflicted her in every register. There was nothing musical, nothing attractive, nothing precisely on the note in the notes she produced; she gave no pleasure. The old plummy Larmore sound was never in evidence.

James Morris, who has been singing at the Met for forty years, starting with Mozart, passing through Bellini and Verdi to Wagnerian triumphs, now suffers from an occasional wobble and a pervading dryness of timbre, but he still cuts an imposing figure, visually and vocally — when he sings, we know he’s there and we know he’s the king. Still, when David Pittsinger sang the Ghost’s music, I wished the brothers might exchange roles as they had exchanged crown and queen. Toby Spence was rather wasted on the small remains — a trio and a duel-duet — of Laërte, and glum Richard Bernstein and lyrical Mark Schowalter made their scene as the Gravediggers seemed far too brief.

In default of the regularly scheduled prima donna, Simon Keenlyside was the headliner of his Hamlet — as he deserves to be. Keenlyside’s voice can seem light and gracious in lieder recitals, then turn so dark and shadowy that the radio listener wonders if it is he or James Morris. We have not had him nearly as often in New York as we might like, but the raves that have met his Billy Budd, Prince Andrei and Rodrigo di Posa in London and on the continent may puzzle Met listeners. His voice, I fear, is not big enough for the house — his acting is too subtle for its spaces. He is never casual for a moment, each word and gesture are considered, and we are often riveted (when he is terrified of the Ghost) or unnerved (when he capers unpredictably before the king and queen), but the beauty of his singing in other roles was given short shrift here. The rumbustious drinking song with which he celebrates the king’s reaction to his strategic play-within-the-play did not ring out. It might be more interesting to hear his sound from upstairs, if one could do that while studying his fascinating portrayal of the character from closer up. I’d go to another performance of the opera if I could endure those awful sets again.

Louis Langrée, who leads the Mostly Mozart forces in his summer job, understands the machine that is grand opera: tight rhythms, driving power when the chorus is to be loosed upon us, and the supportive playing of a variety of tone colors by a variety of instruments required by the showpiece arias that give a work like Hamlet its texture and distinction.

John Yohalem

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):