Covent Garden has not mounted a production of Ambroise Thomas’s Hamlet for 93 years. In many ways, it is easy to see why. You don’t have to be a Shakespeare purist to find something intrinsically ridiculous in the hero subsuming his existential angst in a number of jolly drinking songs, or disturbing in Hamlet Senior arriving at Ophelia’s graveside to dispatch his widow to a nunnery and proclaim his son king. That said, suspension of disbelief is an occupational imperative for the habitual opera-goer, and in the right production some of Thomas’s set-pieces – the play scene, the confrontation between Hamlet and his mother, and Ophelia’s suicide – can be genuinely thrilling.
So is this the right production? In its early stages it’s hard to tell, as the design team seem to have taken the idea of the hero’s gloom rather literally. In the opening scene, for example, the combination of Stygian darkness and subfusc colours rendered the chorus almost invisible. Mad or not, Hamlet would be hard-pressed to tell a hawk from a handsaw in this light. The principals do wear slightly brighter colours, but it is still difficult to see their faces, which is a shame, given that the central quartet – Simon Keenlyside as Hamlet, Natalie Dessay as Ophelia, Robert Lloyd as Claudius and Yvonne Naef as Gertrude – are visually as well as vocally expressive.
There is a similar over-literalness in the set, which consists of a number of curved walls with unopenable doors, emphasising the characters’ inability to break down the barriers between them. In fact, with a couple of exceptions, there is little that is visually striking in the production.
The chief exception is the play scene, where the players’ dumb show – in which they are in effect acting out the murder of Hamlet’s father – casts monstrous shadows over the perpetrators sitting behind. This is not a particularly new idea, but it is certainly effective. Still more so is Hamlet’s reaction, in which he climbs on to the now-abandoned banqueting table and liberally douses himself in red wine, giving himself the very appearance of a blood-boltered ghost.
There is an echo of this later when Ophelia, abandoned and in her wedding dress, resorts to a bit of self-mutilation before going to her traditional watery death. This points up nicely, of course, the fact that whereas Hamlet feigns madness and toys with suicide, Ophelia suffers both.
Indeed, notwithstanding the opera’s title, this is really Ophelia’s show, and Natalie Dessay is extremely well cast. She looks suitably waif-like, but has a voice belying her size and, crucially, appears to float the extremely high tessitura with ease (all the more remarkable given that, two years ago, she was suffering such serious vocal problems that it was feared she would not sing again). She is also a fine actress. Rather as in “Marten aller Arten” in Il Seraglio, the prolonged suicide scene can come across as mere vocal gymnastics (i.e., showing off), but in this instance it did indeed give the impression of a genuine outpouring of thwarted passion, bordering on hysteria.
Of course, it helps that Simon Keenlyside’s Hamlet is a character one can be passionate about. This most intelligent of singers is an ideal Hamlet – both boyish and tormented, he is completely believable, to the extent that it would be interesting to see him act a “straight” Hamlet, just as Willard W White played a non-singing Othello during the 1990s. (This assumes, of course, that Mr Keenlyside survives long enough to do so – displaying his habitual disregard for life and limb, there are moments when he practically runs through the scenery.)
For the most part, the other two main singers match up to these high standards. Despite being burdened with a deeply bizarre wig and a dress apparently made out of chamois leather, Yvonne Naef impresses, particularly in her confrontation with Hamlet, while Robert Lloyd deploys his sepulchral tone very effectively. The minor characters make less of an impression, but in any case have very little to do but move the plot forward.
So, is it worth going? Probably. This is not an opera that will make you cry – it may even make the unwary laugh. However, the central performances are riveting, and parts of the score genuinely shine. And, after all, you may have to wait nearly a century for the next London production.