Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Met HD Hamlet strips down to bare emotion

Photos by Marti Sohl/Metropolitan Opera

With the arrival of spring, The Met: Live HD world cinemacast series continued with its eighth presentation of Ambroise Thomas’s Hamlet in a bracing production by the celebrated directing duo of Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser. The pair, with the experience of more than a quarter century and 70 operas between them, eschewed the normal convention of elaborate sets to present a stripped down production staged by Set Designer Christian Fenouillat and Lighting Designer Christophe Forey. Famed multicamera television and video director Brian Large, in his second MET HD outing of the season created a riveting and fluid visual reading of Shakespeare’s intense drama.

“Half of what I’m involved with here is interpolating the character of Hamlet and reading between the lines,” English baritone Simon Keenlyside, who plays the troubled dark Prince of Denmark, told Met diva and backstage interviewer Renee Fleming following an emotionally draining first act. “This isn’t Shakespeare’s Hamlet, but something quite different. So what makes the character stand out for me are some differences in shading and certain nuances. That’s what makes it happen for me.

Fleming pointed out, “The problem is, everybody knows this play. Everybody knows Hamlet. What’s the challenge for you to somehow make this interpretation different?

“That’s the problem. Everybody comes to Hamlet with such ‘gravitas,’ but this isn’t the play. This isn’t Hamlet as people already know him. It offends many people that it isn’t the Hamlet they know. Its texturally Hamlet, its just not Shakespeare. It’s similar enough and powerful nonetheless and it makes people think. When I’m singing this role, I can’t draw the line between being a singer and being an actor. Like you, Renee, I’m a storyteller.”

The opera, sung in French with English subtitles, was not without its own sense of drama that would have been worthy of a Shakespearean play. Ten days before Opening Night, the Met found itself without a lead soprano in the French opera that had not been performed there in more than a hundred years. Veteran Natalie Dessay, who had been scheduled to perform the lead role had fallen ill and was forced to cancel.

“I was in Vienna finishing up ‘Medea’ when I got the call from Peter Gelb (Met General Manager),” German coloratura soprano Marlis Petersen told Fleming backstage. “I had six days to learn a five-act, three hour French opera. Maestro (Louis) Langree and I communicated on Skype, the Internet is absolutely fantastic, and I watched a production of Hamlet that had been performed in Geneva on the plane coming over from New York. So I have to thank all this wonderful new technology for making my performance happen.”

The results onstage and in live cinemacast were mesmerizing. Featuring a large vocal cast, directed by Met Chorus Director Donald Palumbo and wearing elaborate period costumes by

Met Costume Designer Agostino Cavalco, the Met brought forth a superlative production. The paucity of sets became a non-issue, especially due to the dramatic lighting effects created by Lighting Designer Christophe Forey.

The rest of the Met’s brilliant cast made the entire production a joy to watch. Met stalwart, bass-baritone James Morris sang the role of King Claudius, Hamlet’s duplicitous uncle, who Hamlet suspects conspired to murder his father along with his mother, Queen Gertrude, sung with regal beauty by veteran mezzo Jennifer Larmore. Toby Spence lent his beautiful tenor voice to the role of Ophelia’s brother Laerte and beautifully portrayed that character’s angst and frustration. David Pittsinger sang appropriately grave tones as the ghost of Hamlet’s murdered father.

“Originally, there was another ending where Hamlet lives to take his father’s throne,” conductor Langree confided to Fleming in his backstage interview. “But there’s something in the Anglo-Saxon spirit that just wouldn’t allow that to happen, so everything ends here with great tragedy.” It was felt deeply as the curtain fell on this seamlessly executed production.

The final Met: Live HD cinemacast will be presented Saturday, May 1 at 1pm Eastern, noon Central time, with Renee Fleming in the title role of the Met’s new production of Rossini’s Armida, which is rarely performed. Rising African American tenor Larence Brownlee, who is on the cover of the April issue of Opera News magazine, will also star.

Set during the crusades, Armida is the story of the love between Armida, a Saracen sorceress and Rinaldo, leader of the Christians, who is torn between love and his sense of duty.

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