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By Joel Kasow

NEW YORK, 19 AUGUST 2010 — Hamlet once more poses his eternal question in Simon Keenlyside’s unforgettable portrayal of the title role in Ambroise Thomas’s Hamlet, to be seen on PBS screens this summer (check local listings). While the cognoscenti continue to sneer at Thomas’s take on Shakespeare, this is clearly a work that can come to life when given the life-or-death approach of just such a singer as the English baritone. Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser’s much travelled production of the work came to rest at the Metropolitan Opera in the spring of 2010. I have previously reported on the production at its premiere in Geneva in 1996 where I expressed my enthusiasm for the work, and not only of the baritone, but also his extraordinary partner on that occasion, Natalie Dessay. They later sang their roles at Covent Garden and Liceu in Barcelona.

Dessay should also have been part of this revival but was replaced at the last minute by Marlis Petersen. Petersen gives an exceptional performance in these circumstances but the chemistry is not on the same level as that offered by her predecessor in the role. Keenlyside is advantageously filmed here; he is always in character, something caught every time the camera is on him. Toby Spence’s youthful enthusiasm is what Laërtes should offer. Jennifer Larmore is a tortured Gertrude, easily encompassing the wide range of the role. Alas, James Morris as the King sounds every bit of his 63 years, wobbling away. He could take a lesson in vocal steadiness from the implacable Ghost of David Pittsinger.

Marlis Petersen and Simon Keenlyside in Hamlet
Photo: © PBS Great Performances at the Met

For the scoffers, there is always the composer’s imaginative orchestration alongside the occasional platitude, but Louis Langrée gave a tight reading of a score that he may now know better than any other conductor today. Given the functional production of Caurier and Leiser — though their attraction to the now worn cliché of elegant costumes for the women next to a version of army surplus for Hamlet might be retired — the filming is excellent, focusing on the principals which enhances our appreciation of their work. One nonetheless wishes that better care had been taken with respect to the French text, only Larmore and Keenlyside being intelligible.

Keenlyside is one of the consummate singer-actors of our time, whether as Hamlet or Pelléas or Don Giovanni or Papageno, not to mention such curiosities as Mercurio in Cavalli’s Calisto or a totally demented Oreste in a concert performance of Iphigénie en Tauride. He switches with ease to the totally different demands of the concert platform to sing lieder and melodies with an artistry that few others can command.

Hosted by the  American soprano Renée Fleming, Hamlet airs on Great Performances at the Met on PBS Television.  Hamlet is the ninth of 10 productions airing during the 2009 - 2010 season of Great Performances at the Met. The performance is sung in French with English surtitles.

Headline photo: Simon Keenlyside in Hamlet
Photo: © PBS Great Performances at the Met

Joel Kasow is the Operanet editor at Culturekiosque.com. He has been opera critic for Opera (U.K.) and Opera News (U.S.A) for thirty years and was elected to the International Music Critics Association (UNESCO) in 1996. Long before the existence of "blogs", Mr. Kasow kept an Opera Diary for Culturekiosque. Opera fans can access the archive of his intensely personal, ongoing commentary on the opera world here.   

For collectors of opera and vocal recordings, please click here to access Operanet's archive of CD and DVD reviews.

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