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04 April, 2010

Hamlet at the Met - Ambroise Thomas

Hamlet at the Met. Ambroise Thomas. Wed 24th March 2010

This was a splendid performance of the Bard’s classic story in a less classic French opera, albeit with immortal moments. Hamlet was brilliantly portrayed by English baritone Simon Keenlyside who has gone from strength to strength, now doing one of the most dramatic mental undoings of the stage. His drinking song (O vin, dissipe la tristesse) was rousing with the mighty Met chorus, reminiscent of Sherrill Milnes in his heyday (he did this role in Sydney many years ago).

The curtailed play ‘within’ was a brilliant pas-de-deux ballet with the ‘girl’ played by a tall male dancer with rouged cheeks as per Shakespearean times when women could not be seen on stage (at least in England). Bizarre, but most enjoyable - and most effective in raising the regal ire. Following the king’s outburst, Hamlet, in “j’accuse” mode, leaps onto the royal banquet table and pours a pitcher of blood/wine onto the damask. He then wraps himself in the bloodied cloth and even drinks/gargles/spits between his taxing vocal lines with his velvet voice and strong characterisation. As if to add yet another degree of difficulty, the director had the table on wheels, an unnecessary and inappropriate device in my opinion (OHS issue pending if I were the house doctor).

Popular soprano Natalie Dessay pulled out several weeks before the opening due to illness (who would want to run an opera company?!). The second-cast Ophelia German soprano Marlis Petersen stepped up. And she has all that is takes for this oppressed and rejected character, culminating in her marathon mad scene. Rather than drowning which is mentioned in the text, in this production she slowly cuts vertical incisions on both wrists which bleed liberally, finally doing the same in her cleavage, creating a blood bath of technical difficult only matched by the phenomenal coloratura she was singing at the time. I wonder if this looked too surgical or artificial on the HD telecast … it looked perfect from my stalls seats. But in my opinion this is another liberty taken by directors - asking singers to do extraordinary things while they ‘chew gum’. Ms Petersen not only had to do all this blood letting in the last minutes of her cabaletta, ‘Pale et blonde’ but also had to sing the final climactic notes lying prostrate facing away from the audience. Ridiculous! Gone are the days of standing and delivering, yet all these dramatic demands cannot possibly improve the vocal line.

Jennifer Lamore was marvellous as the conniving queen Gertrude.

The opera’s music, like the story, is dark and brooding. Unfortunately the Met artistic management decided to omit most of the ballet music which to my mind is uplifting and crucial in balancing for the work as a whole. I have often said that it could replace Prozac in suitable cases.

I read that Hamlet was intended to be a tenor role but no suitable singer could be found (can someone lend me a tenor?!). So Thomas re-wrote it for a famous baritone of the time and it has been thus ever since. The other important minor roles were taken by Met singers of high calibre including Toby Spence, David Pittsinger, Matthew Plenk, Richard Bernstein and Maxim Mikhailov. James Morris has had a glorious bass/baritone career and is probably now beyond doing major roles such as Wotan. However, like Samuel Ramey, Paul Plishka and numerous others, the Met continues to use their services in appropriate and less arduous roles. In such cameo or minor roles such senior singers form an important connection with a previous age for young artists, something which unfortunately does not happen in Australia to any great extent despite the wealth of ‘senior’ talent around.

Louis Langrée conducted a solid score - my only criticism the absent ballet music.

The performance was filmed by perhaps 8 cameras across the auditorium which was distracting, especially for those nearby. I gather this was done as a back-up for the high definition cinema simulcast the following Saturday afternoon which will reach participating Australian and Japanese cinemas later in April. Due to the time difference it is largely Europe and the Americas which benefit from these matinee performances direct in real-time. These are usually then released onto DVDs and television and continue the Metropolitan Opera’s contribution to operatic posterity which goes back 50 years or more with the Saturday radio broadcasts.

This Hamlet production from Geneva is by Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser. It involves two large symmetrical wheeled sets cleverly designed to be castle exteriors on one side and domestic interiors on the other, both somewhat curved and thus self supporting.

The production and performance were of extremely high quality and I am sure that the cinema broadcast will be well received. However, it must be said that the opera itself is less than an enduring masterpiece, despite having numerous high points. Rather than one intermission it should have two to space the five acts (and accommodate my favourite ballet music!).

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..

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02 April, 2010

Exemplary Aida at the Met: performance number 1113(!). Faulty scenery!

Aida Friday 26th March 2010 8pm. The Metropolitan Opera

Dear Colleagues,

My father (aged 83) and brother were in town from Australia for this Met performance with a new cast and conductor. We were fair bowled over by the incomparable quality and power of the show which was one of the high points of my opera-going experience. Chinese soprano Hui He made her Met debut and she proved to be a dramatic and vocal force to be reckoned with. She has done Turandot in Italy. The voice is large and well placed with an even production (happily there was no triumphal E flat attempted!). Her expressive diminuendos, portamento and soft high singing were exemplary. Not to be outdone, Salvatore Licitra sang the most creditable Radames I have heard in a long time. He sang Celeste Aida conquering the pianissimo ending which is written but which few tenors can manage. His dramatic portrayal was superb.

But perhaps the star of the night was Dolora Zajick (and some say the opera should be called ‘Amneris’). Her strong mezzo voice was again in evidence. Carlo Guelfi was also a fitting if slightly rough Ethiopian king.

Stefan Kocán was a suitable Pharaoh who leads the patriotic concerted piece ‘Su del Nilo’. As Ramfis Carlo Colombara was more than adequate.

Conductor Marco Armiliato kept the orchestra producing wonderful music at sympathetic paces. There is obviously chemistry happening in the pit unlike what happened on the La Traviata opening on Monday 29th March under Leonard Slatkin. On that night, as well as singers missing beats, I noted three brass players returning mid-act to miss a cue, an almost unforgivable lapse, like a sailor missing the boat.

Enough has been said and written about the magnificent Met Aida extravaganza directed by Sonja Frisell. All I can add is that despite their imposing nature the sets by Gianni Quaranta contain a major error. They all look well aged, despite the opera taking place in royal palaces and temples of one of the great waring dynasties (18th most likely). The columns, capitals, walls, hieroglyphics and other architectural detail each look just like the Egyptian items at the Metropolitan Museum. Yet in reality they would have been bright coloured and fresh, perhaps with gilding, lapis and ebony decoration. Of course we are all more familiar with the faded sepia tones, broken statues, incomplete cartouches, etc, so I am being picky.

I happened to spy Atlanta tenor Lawrence Brownlee in the foyer a few days ago. He had been supporting Met debut of colleague tenor Mr James Valenti. I complimented him on his excellent recent Met Almaviva and would eagerly await hearing (if not seeing live) the Armida with Ms Fleming. I said that I hoped he might come downunder some time as we were short of tenors … to which he replied that he had heard that our opera company no longer took overseas artists. Now I wonder where he could have heard that? Sadly it is largely true. This is 'small town', 'tall poppy' and ‘false economy’ syndrome all rolled into one. Many subscribers who have heard great opera in the past must seriously have reconsidered their expensive and poor quality opera-going experience. Contrary to their mission statement, much of it is not “opera” at all nowadays with musicals, G&S and experimental works dominating true opera. And the average prices in Sydney are far higher than the Met. ‘D’ reserve has disappeared and standing room is restricted by fire laws, thus losing an important cheap “gateway” for young people to learn about opera. *Shame* on opera management in Australia.

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..

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