Monday night's performance of Ambroise Thomas' "Hamlet" set me reeling, and not just--not even mostly--because I have the Shakespearean text quasi-memorized, its complex dramas held close to my heart. For one thing, I was taking in much of the music for the first time; NOT ideal, but what's a girl to do when the NYPL collections are non-circulating? For another, the Caurier-Leiser production was making a lot of interesting choices which kept me busily thinking. For another, the elegantly stylized costumes were making similarly provocative choices; Hamlet, for instance, was initially dressed in white (appropriately vulnerable and disheveled, pale as his shirt, but not in the trappings and the suits of woe), and Gertrude's hair and makeup were strongly reminiscent of a caricatured 1950s trophy wife. For another, there was the pungent, unmistakable smell of burning shortly before the interval... disquieting, especially when accompanied by the growing rustle of several hundred people shifting and whispering, the disturbance of several dozen people self-evacuating, and the businesslike, unanticipated activities of ushers in the darkness. The New York Fire Department was in evidence at the interval, but we were told that a light cover had begun to smoke and smolder but had been quickly doused with no danger to the public. A non-event, but added still further to the disquiet of the evening!
For it was a disquieting evening. The battlements of Elsinore might have been an innocuous stone gray slightly overgrown with moss, but their streaky color increasingly came to look like something stagnant, putrid... yes, rotten. The initially innocuous-seeming, even welcoming interior walls, with rosy brick and white paint gently netted with pink (suitable to Vaguely 19th Century setting) began first to look as though dripping with blood, and then began to inch closer to the protagonists, once literally swinging across to bar Hamlet's exit from a scene. "Denmark's a prison..." No liberty in this nutshell. This, the stark lighting, and the spare choreography made the whole thing a rather Brechtian (to use the term loosely) experience of being encouraged to sit back and think rather than lean forward and lose oneself. The banquet, appropriately in my view, formed the dramatic highlight of the evening, brilliantly staged with the "Murder of Gonzago" an obscene, offensive farce, shadows of dumbshow-king and dumbshow-queen looming grotesquely over the seated Claudius and Gertrude. When Keenlyside then leapt up onto the banqueting table and started scattering glassware, I think I stopped breathing, as he shouted and gibbered and repeated, chillingly, snatches of the drinking song he had earlier shared with the players. Here he is wrapped in the wine-soaked tablecloth. Different from Shakespeare. Shocking. Absolutely effective.
The "minor" changes of sequence, event, and emphasis to Shakespeare's play are of course not only that: they mean a recalibration of significance, requiring more mental gymnastics from me. The matching of voices to the characters I assumed I knew so well was also curious. James Morris was a gravelly-autocratic Claudius. Gertrude was (I think) still a somewhat boring, stupid, manipulative character (sorry; I've never liked Gertrude; can you tell?)... but Jennifer Larmore's electrifying voice and stage presence sometimes seemed to belie that! Ophélie was sung, and sung well, by Jane Archibald in her Met debut! So much coloratura. And the love duet was exquisite; poor thwarted lovers--they could have been happy! She seemed a little emotionally detached... but perhaps this was poor Ophélie's coping mechanism. The inexplicably fidgety house quieted down, I was happy to note, for her mental collapse, which was agonizing... a much more violent undoing than lilting songs and scattered rue and rosemary.
Hamlet, also, not only says "être ou ne pas être! mystère! " instead of "to be or not to be" etc.; he has become a 19th century Romantic hero instead of a Renaissance philosopher-prince. The essentials, of course, are still there, and Simon Keenlyside embodied them, as a noble man who, in this staging, after running out of a scene which had become unbearable, or beginning to do so, would force himself to turn back, to comfort Ophélie, or say the last words that needed to be said. I was so impressed with Keenlyside. Not only does the man have to sing a demanding baritone part... he has to play Hamlet! I'm willing to bet I wasn't the only audience member with Olivier's prince very much in mind. But Keenlyside was captivating: from first to last almost unbearably expressive with his voice, and physically fearless. (Parenthetically, Anthony Tommasini of the New York times calls Keenlyside "the Ralph Fiennes of baritones." I find this moniker deeply confusing, but thought I'd share it because it fascinates and amuses me as well: what can this possibly mean? that they both have bony-attractive faces? unnerving clear eyes? a somewhat tortured dreaminess? Food for thought, this.) Anyway, I thought he was brilliant: a man of strong character on the edge of disintegration. The rest is silence.