Thursday, March 25, 2010

Ophelia is dead

[Pardon the delay -- Blogger ate an earlier draft of this review.]

Hamlet -- Metropolitan Opera, 3/16/10
Keenlyside, Petersen, Larmore, Spence, Morris / Langree

If Verdi's Attila shows a still youthfully vigorous operatic Romanticism, Ambroise Thomas offers quite a later thing with his so-called Hamlet. It's the hapless and doomed Ophelia of which this Second Empire piece makes much: her presence onstage ignites the music and drama, climaxing in a mad- and death-scene tour de force that makes up the entire fourth act (except the ballet, which this production omits). Hamlet's own spirit, despite Simon Keenlyside's best efforts, is distinctly absent -- a circumstance fatal to any literate English-speaking listener.

The crushed innocent girl is, of course, a classic Romantic-opera trope: most perfectly put to music in 1835's Lucia di Lammermoor, we see her appear over and over in this period, whether not-quite-tragically as La sonnambula's Amina or in Verdi's own hand as Luisa Miller. (By Maeterlinck and Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande she reappears transformed: no longer crushed -- though still too fragile to live -- and perhaps no longer quite innocent either -- though she's definitely not guilty.)

But compare Lucia to Ophelia. Lucia, though a pawn in her brother's political struggle, is an active (if coerced) agent of her destiny, shaping the story twice by decisive deeds: first in accepting the marriage arranged for her (and abandoning her love Edgardo), and then again in murdering this husband before herself falling into madness and death. Poor Ophelia falls in love with Hamlet but remains so far from the central struggle and the forces buffeting him that she never even finds out what's going on, much less influences it.

This is fine in itself -- and the otherwise uninspired import production by Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser does well in highlighting her impotent isolation by leaving all of the peasants offstage for the whole mad scene, which Ophelia therefore sings solo more-or-less in her own head -- but we have moved very far along the Romantic career. Of that aesthetic's two characteristic themes -- "the infinity and then the infinite uselessness of human subjectivity and individuality", as last month's post put it -- the latter has here become so dominant that only she at the furthest remove from action is endowed with real vitality: the rest is depressingly conventional. Thomas, as we may remember, came to prominence turning another literary masterwork into a piece about its innocent and hapless girl (though it's true that Mignon is a much more memorable character than Wilhelm Meister himself, and that her songs have inspired settings from Goethe's younger contemporary Schubert to the present day); his imagination's preference for worldly impotence seems -- whether because of 1812, 1848, 1851, some more specifically cultural-aesthetic evolution, or his own personal taste -- to have been characteristic.

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Shakespeare's Hamlet is himself not exactly an action hero: he is, as most tragic protagonists, one caught in a situation where his particular virtue only leads him more surely to doom. But if Hamlet's quick, dissatisfied, hyper-aware spirit keeps him too long from his deed, it nevertheless dominates and illuminates the show, the great bulk of which is -- no less than the play he stages within his play to expose Claudius -- the very product of Hamlet's dilation, and thoroughly colored by the character that caused it. As much as he tries to use it, the tragic hero's virtue isn't effective -- but it is interesting and significant.

There is nothing of this in Thomas. In every bar and line of music and text his Hamlet is enmeshed in a conventionality and Second Empire syrupiness that even the most energetic performer can't pierce. The mercurial, hyper-articulate prince is made into a leaden, lovesick mooner, and while this sort of bastardization is pretty effective for German Romantic figures -- e.g. Faust and Hoffmann (both written by the same librettist team of Jules Barbier and Michel Carré that did this very opera) -- it makes utter nonsense of Hamlet, happy ending or no.

*     *     *

All the performers did well, although perhaps a really exciting conductor like Nézet-Séguin (Louis Langree, you may recall, once made Don Giovanni boring) could have made more of the score. Perhaps the out-from-illness Natalie Dessay could have provided a stronger star turn in Ophelia's big scenes, but I doubt that would have made an overall difference. Though his interest and inspiration was only in Ophelia, Thomas kept in all the other, less interesting (to him, and -- as set by him -- to us) bits from Shakespeare's play, and they weigh down the whole something awful. If he, anticipating Stoppard, could have cut everything out from the play that's not Ophelia, Thomas might have had a masterpiece... Alas.

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Absolutely no axe-grinding, please.