Thursday, 3 May 2012

Olivier Py’s Hamlet: the play’s the thing

Ambroise Thomas’s Hamlet has riled and infuriated ever since its 1868 première, though for many it is merely an object of derision: one 1869 correspondent to the satirical magazine Punch admits not having seen the work but nevertheless disparages it as ‘Omelette’, a musical burlesque, and pillories Thomas’s fondness for drinking songs with the lines ‘To drink or not to drink? That is now the question / A glass of wine, I think, is good for the digestion’. Hamlet has however acquired its devotees, for whom the meaty title role and a more substantial part for Ophelia than in the play are too full of vocal highlights to ignore, and when the Metropolitan Opera staged the work in 2010 (the first time since 1897) the New York Times ran a spirited defence of Thomas, saying that mauling the Bard is nothing new and that the opera ‘generates its own theatrical frissons when placed in the right hands and treated sympathetically’.
It was interesting to see my first production of Hamlet, even though I doubt I’ll ask for this assignment ever again. That NYT piece almost gives special pleading a bad name, and certainly throughout three and a half hours of Thomas’s anaemic note-spinning I struggled to maintain concentration no less than when I’d been listening to it on disc beforehand. Constant repetition in the mad scene does very little for me, however much a certain dulling of the senses may be construed as serving some dramatic purpose, and ‘Être ou ne pas être’ is an unforgivably banal setting of the monologue. The livelier stuff comes across much better – the Trio I’ve taken a liking to, and I’m with the NYT writer on the drinking songs, which are never merely about merriment, as Py’s staging shows. About Py: this is a play’s the thing production, though not a very logical one, and as I explain in the full review he rather hoists himself with the petard of his dramaturgical notes. Minkowski was indeed that good, as he tends to be with these nineteenth-century French mediocrities; not once at sea, as he can often seem. With reference to this music, this conductor and the German verb ausmachen one could very well make a characteristically Viennese observation that cuts both ways. But having questioned before how Minkowski ever made it to the podium there is no need for that, only the recognition that on this occasion the orchestra truly inhabited the piece under his direction.

This, by the way, is a co-production with La Monnaie.

Christine Schäfer, almost mad, smears herself with mud to attract some game-for-it water nymphs in wolfish garb

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