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2003.05.06 The times: The Hamlet with a happy ending

The Times, 6th May 2003  (Robert Thickness)

The Hamlet with a happy ending. In the opera version of Hamlet the hero lives to fight another day. Our correspondent sees the star get some coaching

TWO SIMONS, TWO Hamlets . . . and the first thing that strikes you is how very unalike the two are. Simon Keenlyside, interior, limber and athletic, quite the part of the prince; Simon Russell Beale, gossipy and a bit portly, more — and I mean this in the nicest possible way — incipient Falstaff than gloomy Dane. And here we all are in a little room at Covent Garden. The chances of an evening of mutual marvellousness are clearly stratospheric.

HamletBarcelona1Let me explain. To celebrate the first showing since 1910 at Covent Garden of Ambroise Thomas’s Hamlet (“Who?” you ask — but don’t panic, we’ll get to that) we have all got together — Keenlyside, the natural successor to Thomas Allen as our favourite baritone, who sings the title role, and Russell Beale, whose recent National Theatre performance of Hamlet was the most notable for a generation — to chat about play and opera and hero and see, really, whether they have anything to do with each other at all.

These two already know each other: they were at Cambridge together, even sang together in Bach’s Coffee Cantata, before going their separate ways, though it’s interesting to learn that Russell Beale initially studied singing (“he could have been really good,” insists Keenlyside) at the Guildhall before switching to acting.

“You could spend a lot of time talking about the opera and saying why it isn’t Hamlet and completely destroy it, but it’s an honest piece,” Keenlyside says. “It’s still about a man who has a job to do and conspicuously fails to do it from start to finish; like the play, his monologues start with revenge and go on to talk about how difficult it is to be alive, what it is to be human. Sure, the details, the wit, the eddies aren’t there.”

Well, that’s opera, you might say. Thomas is a French composer who falls somewhere between Gounod and Massenet, a purveyor of tuneful sentiment, and his treatment of Hamlet is pretty similar to Gounod’s of Goethe’s Faust (both operas were adapted by the same librettists). Clearly, he thought he was producing a real Hamlet: this is more about the history of taste and perception than an attempt to discredit the composer. Which would be easy enough: for example, the opera boasts not only a jolly drinking song for Hamlet, but also a happy ending, as the prince, having skewered Claudius, is proclaimed king. But it could be worse. They say Thomas composed an alternative ending where Ophelia survives and marries Hamlet, their union blessed by an avuncular ghost.

“Well, Garrick gave the play a happy ending in the 1750s,” Russell Beale says. “And there’s a whole strain of drinking throughout Shakespeare, after all. You could easily make an argument for presenting an alcoholic Hamlet.”

HamletBarcelona18One thing that opera and play do have in common is the confrontation between Hamlet and Gertrude, which provokes a highly dramatic duet from Thomas, perhaps the heart of the opera. “It’s very open-ended in Shakespeare: you have to decide where you want to end up,” says Russell Beale. “The big thing about the play is the series of betrayals that Hamlet suffers, which result in his not committing to loving anybody. He cuts everybody off: Ophelia, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, even Horatio, but the one person he cannot cut off is his mother.

“There’s more expansion of what Gertrude thinks in the duet,” Keenlyside says. “She’s begging for pity (the opera also makes it clear, unlike the play, that Gertrude is complicit in her husband’s murder) and Hamlet’s looking at her like an insect, absolutely without compassion . . .

“Unless you’re careful it can become very misogynistic. It’s also the closest he really gets to madness in the whole opera, as the red mist descends, and he’s quite apoplectic.”

Ah, madness — a vexed question in both play and opera, and dealt with similarly by Russell Beale and the Covent Garden directors, Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser. “In the end we took the coward’s way out,” says Russell Beale. “Hamlet only does that Shakespearean mad-talk when he’s with Polonius; when he’s with Ophelia he makes perfect sense: not mad, just a bit upset. I think in the 19th century it was all the rage for him to be actually mad; it’s all about changing perceptions.” “It’s open-ended in the opera, too,” Keenlyside says. “You can make your own decisions. But at the end of the Players’ scene we make it clear that it’s only feigned.”

HamletBarcelona6Despite its many excisions — no Ros & Guil, no arras scene with Polonius — one thing the opera (inevitably) emphasises is Hamlet’s relationship with Ophelia. The pair share a love duet before Hamlet breaks it off. “I think the nunnery scene is a very loving one,” Russell Beale says. “When Ophelia lies to Hamlet (about where Polonius is, when he’s actually spying on them) it’s the final straw for him, the last betrayal, and he tells her: ‘Look, you’ve lied, that’s the first step to buying into this terrible world, get out of it now’.”

“I’d love to be able to think all those things while I’m singing,” Keenlyside says, “but there’s really no room for nuance. The relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia is so thin . . . But basically this is a vehicle for singing and it would be a real pity to miss that point. It’s got some gorgeous music, and you just have to sing the hell out of it. It’s a mistake to try and crowbar it into the play. Perhaps we should call it something else. How about Ophelia?”

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Previous interview 2003.05.24 Hamlet interview from Radio 3. >>>
Next interview 2003.05.02 The Guardian: Outrageous fortune >>>

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