keenlyside_hamletI have to confess that I overheard that line during the intermission of the Met’s new production of Amboise Thomas’s seldom-performed Hamlet based on Shakespeare’s oft-performed play. I couldn’t have said it better myself. 

First off, this production is not really “new.” For years it’s been making the rounds of big international opera houses in what has become a commonplace money-saving device. In fact, there is already a DVD of this production on sale in the Met gift shop.

Christian Fenouillat‘s set consisted of two large semi-circular walls that rolled around the stage as needed. (We did get a nice couch and some left-over flowers in Ophélie’s Mad Scene.) I never did get a sense that co-directors Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser had any overall idea for keeping the piece together. They made a couple of interesting visual choices; one involving wine that looked like blood at the end of the Banquet Scene in Act 2, and the other involving a knife, blood, and a while dress during Ophélie’s Mad Scene in Act 4.

During said Mad Scene Ophélie also had a bundle of towels tied to her stomach like she was pregnant. I never did figure that out. The staging for the big scenes looked awkward, and I suspect anything resembling dramatic coherence was due to the intelligence and artistry of the principals, not the stage directors. I liked most of the costumes by Agostino Cavalca, particularly a stunning white gown that Ophélie wore throughout most of the opera. But they didn’t make up for the “on-the-cheap” feel of the production as a whole.

The common denominator in all the international performances so far has been the Hamlet of Simon Keenlyside and the Ophélie of Natalie Dessay. We were lucky to have the former and disastrously unlucky to have missed out on the latter.

Keenlyside was very good. Listening to him last night again made me wonder , “Where has he been?” —  other than singing major new productions in the rest of the world’s great opera houses, that is.  It’s a beautiful, robust, lyric baritone at the service of an intelligent, committed singing actor. Vocally he was almost ideal. My only reservation was an oddly unexciting performance of the famous “Drinking Song.”

Though the score only paints the character in broad emotional strokes, Keenlyside still managed to give us a glimpse of the tortured youth at the center of this tragic story. And speaking of youth, my only other reservation about Mr. Keenlyside’s performance is that he looked a little long in the tooth to be playing Hamlet – at least without a good facelift and a tummy-tuck. The famous physique he has displayed many times to great advantage turned a little thick of late.

Now to the unlucky part. Natalie Dessay pulled out of the performances some time ago, and the best the Met could come up with was the miserable Marlis Petersen? She’s a lovely girl and a decent, if small-scale, actress, but 60% of the time you couldn’t hear her, and the other 40% of the time you wished you hadn’t. On her first entrance I thought, “Well, it’s a really small voice – think smaller than Kathleen Battle – but there are a few pretty high notes, so maybe the voice gets better the higher it goes.” Unfortunately for us all, it turns out that was as high as it goes. And that’s a big problem, considering she has to sing the opera’s best-known aria, a coloratura showstopper.

It’s been a long time since I was actually angry at the opera house. I’ve been bored, disappointed, unmoved, etc., but last night after Ophélie’s Mad Scene I was actually angry. All the notes on the staff were nothing but approximated, inaudible, stage whispers. There was no attack, brilliance, shape or security in the fioratura. High notes, when they came out at all, were colorless and truncated. I truthfully have no idea whether or not she tried for the High E at the scene’s climax because the scale ended in a sort of mousy squeak of indeterminate pitch. And then I read in the program that this girl is singing Lulu at the Met this season. Inexcusable!

Moving on … I know I’ll get killed for this, but Jennifer Larmore almost stole the show. I was never a big fan during her heyday as a Rossini specialist, but I have to admit she was immensely entertaining as the murderous adulteress, Gertrude. Looking like a cross between the Red Queen from Tim Burton‘s new Alice in Wonderland movie and Norma Desmond, she gave a big, over-the-top performance that injected some much-needed energy into the proceedings. I enjoyed it thoroughly. Her voice is not as plush as it used to be, and she may have been a little overextended by some of the roles demands – Gertrude is a real honk for the mezzo – but she was utterly committed to what she was doing and I bought it hook, line and sinker.

As Claudius, James Morris seemed ill at ease and/or bored. One of the great bass-baritones of our time, his voice still maintains much of its strength, luster and spin, but his top is starting to wear and the low notes are almost gone.

I have to single out tenor Toby Spence. He was making his debut in the relatively small part of Laerte, and he was terrific. He is a tall, handsome man with a beautiful lyric tenor voice. I hope we will hear a lot more from him.

David Pittsinger sounded great on the three or four pitches he actually has to sing as the Ghost of Hamlet’s Father, and Richard Bernstein and Mark Schowalter were fine in their brief turns as the Gravediggers.

Louis Langrée conducted an adequate, square, somewhat lackluster reading of the score, and the usually fabulous Met orchestra seemed halting and tentative. The closed dress rehearsal was reportedly the first time they managed to get all the way through the show without stopping. So I’m guessing things will improve in that department as the run continues.

Hamlet contains some really beautiful music, but — let’s be perfectly clear — this is not a neglected masterpiece. Like a lot of “operas of limited means,” it takes a uniformly great performance to bring them to life. Unfortunately, this isn’t that performance.

Photo: Marty Sohl / Metropolitan Opera