Ophelie dies of self-inflicted knife wounds, Polonius is reduced to a mere walk-on, and Hamlet’s countrymen get to sing not one but two upbeat drinking songs. None of these liberties with the Bard would matter if Ambroise Thomas had written some inspired music for his 1868 opera, but alas, the return of “Hamlet” to the Met only confirms why this work has remained out of the company’s repertory for over a century. The opera is a musical cipher, and the Met has honored its desultory status in the opera canon with a bare-bones, rather tacky-looking production brought over from Switzerland’s Grand Theatre de Geneve.
Star baritones tired of always being assigned the villain have kept this romantic hero on life support in recent decades — from Sherrill Milnes at Carnegie Hall to Thomas Hampson at the San Francisco Opera — and Simon Keenlyside is the latest to try to put Thomas’ Hamlet back on his feet. Here’s another great baritone who could sing the telephone book and remain compelling. His is a crazed but vulnerable Hamlet, and as an actor, he offers a far more nuanced and modulated portrayal of the tragic Dane than did the hyperkinetic Jude Law in his most recent Broadway stint. In fact, the cast of singing actors surrounding Keenlyside is in every respect superior to the provincial Donmar Warehouse troupe with which Law so easily wiped up the Broadhurst stage.
At the Met, Jennifer Larmore’s Gertrude is a Mommie Evilest, and her act three confrontation with Hamlet is the evening’s standout. Toby Spence turns Laerte into Hamlet’s twin brother in their fight for Ophelie’s affections. As that troubled sister/love interest, Marlis MarlPetersen has all the notes and coloratura technique, but her reading of the mad scene is a little muted and she never quite dominates the music to make it truly memorable. Then again, she is a last-minute replacement, flown in from Europe over the weekend to sub for an ailing Natalie Dessay, who is well on her way to topping Montserrat Caballe’s record number of starry cancellations.
With few exceptions, these players’ considerable talents met with tepid applause since most of Thomas’ music fails to linger in the mind long after it is has left anybody’s throat. Louis Langree doesn’t help much with his listless conducting. Then again, a listless reading here is an accurate reading.
Directors Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser deserve kudos for delivering such an accomplished, cohesive ensemble of actor-singers. But they also can take blame for their misguided touch of having the Player King (Peter Richards) and Player Queen (Joshua Wynter) performed as a campy homosexual couple. And no, it doesn’t fly to justify this stereotype as some Elizabethan convention of males playing females when every other role on stage is cast to type and the entire cast, including the Player Queen, is dressed in 19th-century costumes. If Caurier and Leiser are trying to epater the Met masses, they might consider taking a course in sexual enlightment by visiting one of Gotham’s current gay-theme plays. “Next Fall,” “The Pride” and “The Temperamentals” are but a few to be recommended before they depart the city for Europe.
Thomas’ “Hamlet” receives the physical production it deserves in Christian Fenouillat’s two ill-painted flats — nursery-room pink on one side and bilious green on the other — that are rolled about to create a series of uninspired stage pictures. But what kind of engineering mishap turned these two monoliths into echo chambers rather than acoustic shells to support the singers when they perform downstage?