Shakespeare's "Hamlet" is a great story and a great play. It would seem to be perfect for an opera setting. Only one was done, and that was by the French composer Ambroise Thomas, who also wrote "Mignon," a piece rarely done, unfortunately. "Hamlet" is also a rarity, but in a sense for good reason. Unlike "Mignon," "Hamlet" some off as mediocre, cliché-ridden music, sort of bad Verdi (their lives ran almost exactly.) I was prepared not to care, which mainly consisted of walls moving in and out, sometimes distracting, doors leading nowhere, and dark lighting. The concept and stage direction were valid (for a change), and I suspect the very savvy singers had a lot to do with that.
Thomas was saved in this production by some incredibly good singing by people who also know how to act. There was not a bad performance in it, including the brief but beautifully sung scene for the two Gravediggers, Richard Bernstein and Mark Showalter. (I have to assume that the cast listed in Opera News is correct, since the Quick Center program lists only the major leads.) The chorus works was excellent.
The title role was sung by Simon Keenlyside, tireless, mellifluous baritone, who will be the standard by which anyone singing this part will be judged. He never overdid the "melancholy Dane" number, and the emotional roller-coaster of the part never got in the way of his singing.
The love duet with Ophelia (Ophilée) in the first act was stunning, which brings me to Marlis Petersen. Mme. Petersen took over this incredibly demanding role a few days before, and she was sensational. She an Keenleyside created a vocal excitement too rarely heard these days. Her famous Mad Scene was one an example of what a real singing actress can do, when blessed with the sound and range of voice like hers, with a huge range, warmth when needed and crystalline on the top. It was marred only by a silly pillow tied around her waist at the beginning, (fake pregnancy?) which she got rid of, and an "encore" after we all thought she had perished, which could have gotten a giggle had she not maintained the intensity of the this long scene. Her work with the huge number of flowers on stage was a nod to her scene in the actual play, and it worked.
Dear James Morris sang an affecting Claudius, as did mezzo Jennifer Larmore, looking amazingly like Martha Graham, was Gertrude, Hamlet's mother They were a deeply guilt-ridden couple, and with good reason! David Pittsinger was an excellent, vengeful Ghost, and here the director completely ignored Shakespeare's description that he was "armed... as in life," having him draped in a toga-like winding sheet. Polonius, whose important role was scaled way down by Thomas nevertheless made his points as sung by Maxim Mikhailov. Debut tenor Toby Spence sang Laertes. The conductor was Louis Langrée, who drew far more out of the music than one might expect, and was ideally sensitive to the singer. The orchestra was as always, excellent, even with the unchallenging nature of the score.
I came away from this performance very grateful for the high caliber of all the singing and acting, and above all, that Shakespeare and his play, remain immortal, in this instance with heartfelt thanks to interpreters like Keenlyside and Petersen, who frankly saved the day for the composer.