Ambroise Thomas - Hamlet

La Monnaie, Brussels, Sunday December 15 2013

Conductor: Marc Minkowski. Production: Olivier Py. Sets and Costumes: Pierre-André Weitz. Lighting: Bertrand Killy. Claudius: Vincent Le Texier. La Reine Gertrude: Sylvie Brunet-Grupposo. Hamlet: Franco Pomponi. Polonius: Till Fechner. Ophélie: Rachele Gilmore. Laërte: Rémy Mathieu. Horatio/Premier Fossoyeur: Henk Neven. Marcellus/Deuxième Fossoyeur: Gijs Van der Linden. Le Spectre du feu Roi: Jérôme Varnier. Orchestra and Chorus of La Monnaie.

True to form, La Monnaie has given us, and Ambroise Thomas, a generous Christmas present, albeit not a very cheerful one of course, by doing his Hamlet (or must I call it "the Danish play"?) proud.

A. Thomas
Olivier Py's production was more solidly successful than his recent Alceste and Aida in Paris, with fewer directorial sillinesses (though tics there were: bare-chested demons with kinky mastiffs' heads, chalking on walls and floor, a chorus bearing banners marked "Liberté"...) and more real drama, supplied in particular by Franco Pomponi, a real and unstinting bête de scène. The ingenious set played an important part, too. As the opera began, a trembling polythene curtain, reflecting the house lights, rose to reveal steep, black brick steps with pale grouting, the full height and breadth of the stage. They reminded me immediately of how much easier it was to go up the pyramids in Chichén Itzá than come back down. Hamlet sat there, bare-chested (there were a lot of bare chests: Hamlet, extras/demons, the travelling players, the late king's ghost in a "Damien Hirst" diamond-skull mask... Later, in his bath and out, Hamlet would bare absolutely all) scarring himself slowly with a knife.

But this apparently single flight of steps turned out to be divided into "slices", just like cake, that could slide back and rotate to reveal their arcaded substructures and form new flights of steps, walls, rooms, battlements and more against a background of black-bricked, underground vaults stretching away into the distance. All this oppressively enclosed space (like a giant coal-hole really) was an obvious but effective symbol of the grim, gloomy atmosphere at Denmark's rotten court and the dark state of Hamlet's mind. Everyone was, of course, in timeless black, apart from Ophelia in white - grubby white once she'd gone doolally. Queen Gertrude was quite strikingly got up as a kind of overripe silent-film vamp, apparently naked, or at any rate in suspenders, under the black lace; quite a good wife for the ageing, seedy Claudius. The one time the directing really went over the top was when, instead of just bathing stark-naked Hamlet's self-inflicted wounds from behind, as he sat in his tub, she clambered over the edge and joined him in it. Apart from that, again thanks largely to Pomponi's commitment but also to careful, detailed directing (in this revival by Andreas Zimmermann), the above-mentioned tics being par for the course, we had an afternoon of unusually satisfactory drama.

Franco Pomponi, as by now must be obvious, dominated the cast. The "unbending" nature of his singing, as a friend put it, was not a problem in such dramatic circumstances. He made an excellent job af a demanding role. Similarly, though Vincent Le Texier may now be somewhat rough-hewn and Sylvie Brunet's top range is distinctly worn and torn, she has at least a definite, distinctive, old-fashioned timbre and vibrato that you may or may not like but that undeniably has character, so together they made a plausible pair of old rogues. Rachele Gilmore was perhaps cautious and reserved, but as a result she was accurate. Her voice is sweet throughout the range, not acid at the top. Only at the most stratospheric extremes - this role being French and of its time, it has some of those of course - did it thin out, reasonably enough.

The supporting cast was excellent (and I'll put in a special mention for Henk Neven, more of whom would be welcome; I think I've already said that of Jérôme Varnier), the chorus was at its best, and so was the orchestra under Minkowski, whose vigorous, no-nonsense sort of conducting may not be as tender with the score as some people might like, but suits La Monnaie's non-nonsense band. It will be interesting to see the same show on TV with the other cast. I'm sure Stéphane Degout must be marvellous, for one, no doubt delivering a very different Hamlet. But we weren't short-changed on Sunday afternoon, by any means.

Maestro Wenarto sings Ophélie's Drunk Scene.

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