Tuesday, March 30, 2010

To Be or Not to Be......Hamlet as Opera

Have any of you had a chance to attend the Met Opera's live HD broadcasts at your neighborhood cinema screens? This past Saturday in NYC they performed an operatic version of Hamlet composed by the relatively unknown Ambroise Thomas, beamed live in HD to millions of people around the globe, who were watching (and presumably cheering, as our audience was) in theaters that had to be open during the middle of the night in some timezones. Regardless of the broadcast time, reports show theaters in all locations are absolutely full at each of these live Met Opera HD broadcasts and having to open adjacent theaters in cinema complexes to accommodate the overflow crowds.

And now I can see why! Hamlet, in this case, was an all-around amazing, energizing and unexpectedly fulfilling experience both in terms of the shared media performance in the packed cinema, and in the quality of the opera's music and the singers performing it. I had not had a chance to hear/see either of the two principals in a live performance previous to this, and was astounded at the acting ability (Simon Keenlyside, playing Hamlet, in particular) on top of the glorious vocal techniques. Gone are the days when typically-very -large opera stars stood still in place and sang their arias, then moved stiffly across the stage to their next blocking position to await another vocal cue. In virtually all of the operas I have seen lately, the singers are (almost all) quite trim, stylish and youthful - if you met them on the street you would have no idea what they do for a living - and their staging requires them to do varying feats of near-acrobatics in aerobic levels of movement while portraying the stories and action with the other characters.

Marlis Petersen, playing Ophelie, was beautiful to watch with a lyrical tone to match, singing demanding technical passages with absolute tonal assurance and heart-wrenching emotion in the "mad scene". The back-stage drama involved with her doing this role almost equaled the onstage story - due to illness of the scheduled soprano she was contacted in Europe, agreed to take the part on little more than 48 hours notice, and received coaching from the opera conductor via Skype until she could finish her current performances and fly to the Met in time for opening night! So we have yet another reason to rejoice over the benefits of modern media in its combination with classical music, beyond even the fact that non-wealthy music listeners everywhere can now, thanks to media advances, watch live performances of the Metropolitan Opera in NY with much better seats than the patrons in the opera hall!

The camera crews - placed not only on stage but also in the orchestra pit and backstage - are obviously extremely talented, experienced and well prepared, aimed on specific solo instruments in the orchestra interludes at exactly the moments they begin their particular solos, and catching tiny changes in facial expression or eye contact among the "characters" on stage. There were delightfully enlightening and honest interviews with the stars as they came off stage at intermission - for example, it was quite inspiring to hear Simon Keenlyside admit that he "doesn't read music very well at all" and learns his music/notes pretty much by ear, as he acts out the part - simply singing his feelings rather than expressing them in speech. The fact is, he is a more powerful and intense actor than most that are seen in movies or television - he just happens to have an incredibly expressive singing voice to go with it. It would seem to me that this makes him an ideal opera singer for the "masses" of folks who might never have ventured into exploring that dramatic form of music.

I hear that there is an encore broadcast of this performance being shown again the cinemas, perhaps this coming weekend or next. My recommendation would be to find out where, and "just GO!"

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