Wednesday, March 31, 2010

"Blasphemetries:" Adaptations

I don't know whether or not "blasphemetries" has the makings of a new neologism, but the French conductor Louis Langrée's humorous use of it during a backstage interview of the MET opera's HD broadcast of Hamlet made movietheater-going opera lovers chuckle.

The occasion was the latest installation in the acclaimed series of live movie broadcasts (that coincide with the weekly radio broadcasts) from the MET. This new production of Ambroise Thomas' grand french operatic adaptation of Shakespeare's beloved tragedy is the MET's first in over 100 years.

Langrée's malapropism refers to the Anglo-saxon contempt for idolatrous adaptations of the Bard, especially at the hands of the French. Mon dieu! But then, the most popular French opera of the 19th century is another adaptation of a paradigmatic work. Goethe's Faust is to German literature and culture what Hamlet is to English. And not coincidentally, the librettists Carré and Barbier adapted both Goethe and Shakespeare for the librettos Gounod and Thomas set (in 1859 and 1868, respectively).

The singular challenge of judging any adaptation is the objectively impossible one of measuring it on its own merits. This is as true for cinematic adaptations of novels as it is for operas and other musical "versions" of literary originals.

I just read an article that the composer Michael Berkeley is working on an operatic version of Ian McEwan's acclaimed novel, Atonement. The novel was recently made into a quasi-epic period drama starring Keira Knightley and James McAvoy that was an above average movie on its own merits, while being widely dismissed by librophiles, McEwan devotees, purists, and other philistines (I fall into a majority of those categories on any given day).

So, if not impossible to judge Hamlet the opera without referring to its source, that is at least one point of departure. Shakespeare's Ophelia is a supporting role: her presence aids our understanding of the melancholy Dane without her being a fully fleshed out character. Thomas' opera elevates Ophelie to prima donna status. She has one of the great "mad scenes" in all of opera, and where Lucia stabs her unwanted husband to death before THE most famous operatic mad scene, the operatic Ophelia (in this production) stabs herself. She dies and then rises for a musical postcript: a difficult feat to achieve without eliciting a bemused chuckle from the audience.

Polonius--a great character role in Shakespeare--is reduced to a cipher. Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet's duplicitous "friends" are eliminated, as is his fellow prince, Fortinbras. Thomas' original ending finds the title character still alive (which prompted the MET conductor's observation of the perceived "blasphemetries"). Thomas did provide an alternate ending, but rather than being poisoned by Laertes, the two men stab each other. The dying Hamlet embraces the grave-bound Ophelie, and then kills his uncle & step-father (ah, Shakespeare!) Claudius, at the behest of his father's ghost, who has appeared to the entire company, in an operatic deus ex machina worthy of Mephistopheles himself!

I was riveted by the production and the potrayal of the title character by the British baritone Simon Keenlyside. His Hamlet was one of the most complete performances I've ever seen on any stage. If there were operatic awards like the Oscars and Tony's then he would be the favorite. To call Keenlyside a singing actor is an injustice to both aspects of his art. His french was impeccable, his voice a vast spectrum of color, range and facility, and his physical presence arresting. To call him a stage animal, however clichéd, also risks oversimplification. I could go on. If you have the opportunity to see him live, do.

I was reminded of Faust on several occasions, but one of the most telling was in the act one trio that follows Laertes' entrance and aria. Both operas involve a triangle of romantic and sibling relationships. Faust (tenor), his beloved Marguerite (soprano) and her protective brother, Valentin (baritone) form one of Gounod's triangles. In Hamlet, the leading male roles are reversed and Laertes is sung by a tenor, and this may be but one of several reasons for Hamlet's neglect.

Another reason for its neglect may be the purgatory it inhabits between the worlds of French grand opera and Wagnerian drama. I wrote about Wagner and Meyerbeer last August, and the former's debt to the latter's masterpiece, Les Huguenots. One of the distinguishing characteristics of grand opera--and especially the Parisian variety--is the cumulative power the great ones have. The series of set pieces--choruses, marches, ballets, with arias, duets and ensembles in between--help suspend disbelief, thus keeping the attentive listener engaged, while adding up to a whole greater than the sum of any individual part.

While Faust is not quite on the grand scale of a Meyerbeer opera, it is in that vein (and ironically, wears both its indebtedness to Meyerbeer and Wagner). The arias and ensembles are its most distinguishing--and popular--features. Thomas absorbed even more of Wagner's emergent leitmotif-driven style, and Hamlet, if not through-composed in the Wagnerian sense, unfolds with fewer "numbers." The integration of the narrative into the fabric of the score gives it a dramatic coherence. Yet many of the set pieces are stll present in Hamlet: the title character's drinking song, the festive choruses, the ballet (a pantomime--one of the score's brilliant strokes, musically and dramatically), and the aforementioned "mad scene."

Watching Keenlyside and listening to the evocative, dark hued score, I was reminded of how essential it is for unknown and under-appreciated works to be driven by inspired performances. I hinted at this earlier this year in an essay about the Second Viennese school and the impassioned performances Barenboim, Boulez and the Vienna Phil brought to the "difficult" music of Schoenberg and Webern. Oftentimes, the only thing between an audience and appreciation is a compelling performance.

This broadcast was just that for this audience member. The score is full of distinguishing details. The prelude features a spectral trombone solo that will reappear with the ghost of Hamlet's father. I was reminded of Berlioz's underperformed work for wind band, the Symphonie Triomphale et Funêbre. The central movement of that grand symphony is a funeral march with a great trombone solo. Another color of which late 19th century french opera was fond was the solo saxophone. Massenet's Werther has one of the most famous of these excerpts. Thomas' use of a solo sax in the pantomime is equally effective (the pantomime coincides with the "play within the play" where Hamlet uses a traveling troupe to reenact his father's murder: using a "set piece" to drive the drama forward is evidence of Thomas' genius).

While far from faithful to Shakespeare's original, Thomas' Hamlet is Shakespearean in its musical characterizations. Like other great musical adaptations of the Bard--from Verdi to Gounod to Bernstein--it stands on its own legs. If "the play's the thing" then the opera is a worthy cousin. Nothing blasphemetrous after all.

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