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Simon Keenlyside and Marlis Petersen give strong performances in the Metropolitan Opera's staging of Ambroise Thomas' troublesome opera.

Simon Keenlyside and company in Hamlet
(© Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera)
There's a convincing reason why Ambroise Thomas' Hamlet, which is back on the Metropolitan Opera stage for the first time in over a century, is not often performed. While it has its alluring points, maybe even enough of them to allow audiences sufficient enjoyment to offset the steep price of admission, it's simply not very good.

Still, the current production, directed by Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser, brings us the opportunity to hear Simon Keenlyside in the title role, a performer whose full-throated baritone is matched by his acting prowess, and provides a fancy showcase for the excellent soprano Marlis Petersen (who was hustled in to replace the ill Natalie Dessay) as the eventually mad Opehlie.

The music -- in a Giuseppe Verdi mold that might have been conducted with a pinch more force by Louis Langree -- is quite listenable. It rises to melodic and dramatic heights in an early Hamlet-Ophelie love duet, a drinking song for Hamlet and male chorus, the volatile Hamlet-Gertrude mother-son confrontation and, most notably, in Ophelie's mad scene, which takes up the entire fourth act.

As that indicates, however, librettists Michel Carre and Jules Barbier have taken liberties with Shakespeare's original text. Sadly, they've cheapened the passionate and nuanced narrative into a 19th-century melodrama. Moreover, no Hamlet partisan is going to settle for a retelling in which Polonius is reduced to a walk-on, in which Rosencranz and Guildenstern are completely excised, Fortinbras is never to be seen or mentioned, and Ophelia bloodies herself before sinking in that fatal pond or where there's no swordplay and no poisoned cup that gets into the wrong hands. Worse still, Hamlet's four great soliloquies are also edit victims, with only part of the "To be or not to be?" rumination left.

While Jennifer Larmore as a vocally strong Gertrude (albeit one hampered by a wig starting high on her forehead), James Morris as an occasionally wobbling Claudius, and Toby Spence as an impressive Laerte all make worthwhile contributions, the two stars are undoubtedly the main attraction. The wiry Keenlyside's emotional take on the Danish prince is, among other things, an argument for his appearing more often on the Met stage. What Petersen does during that fourth-act mad sequence in the way of flower-strewing and coloratura glittering is something to behold. (And measured against the aria-time that Thomas gives Hamlet suggests that the composer favored sopranos over baritones.)

On the down side, the physical production by Christian Fenouillat is, to put it mildly, nothing to write home about. It consists mostly of two tall, light-colored, curved walls that are pushed and pulled around and have high doors in them that no one ever uses. The sets are so non-specific that Hamlet and Gertrude appear to have their set-to in a castle corridor where anyone might pass by.

Not to worry about Polonius and that arras, though. There's no arras and no stabbed Polonius. He remains intact for the finale, which is more than can be said about Hamlet.