2003.05.24 Hamlet interview from Radio 3.
Broadcast 24 May 2003, BBC Radio 3
in connection with the broadcast of “Hamlet”
(recorded 20 May 2003 at the ROH).
Interviewer Stephanie Hughes
Transcribed by Ursula Turecek
Tonight’s opera may be on the fringes of the repertoire but it has proved to be an outstanding vehicle for the two stars of the show, English baritone Simon Keenlyside and the French soprano Natalie Dessay making her long-awaited Covent Garden debut. The opera is “Hamlet”, it’s by the 19th century French composer Thomas with Keenlyside in the title role as the young prince and Dessay as Ophelia, the woman he spurns. It’s based on Shakespeare’s play of course and although many composers were attracted to the story, including Verdi and Berlioz, only Thomas had the nerve and the audacity to make an opera out of it. Now, whether he should or not it still hotly debated to this day but Simon Keenlyside is in no doubt about its value:
SK: It’s a high melodramatic 19th century opera and it is what it is, this piece is an honest piece, it’s powerful and that’s what you want, isn’t it ? And Hamlet is in our blood in this country.
…..The king, queen and courtiers are horrified, particularly Ophelia. It seems that her loving presence is unable to calm Hamlet’s emotions. I asked Simon Keenlyside how he approached the relationship between them in the opera. How strong Hamlet’s emotions are for Ophelia:
SK: You start from a point from which you descend pretty quickly, which is a genuine affection between them. That presents a problem in itself because you can if you’re not careful have a candlewaving moment at the beginning of a love-duet with a soupy tune – wonderful. Now you don’t apologise for it and… and not sing it as it is, but at the same time if you set your stall out as being a deep and profound and loving relationship I think you have too far then to go because later on in the “Get thee into a nunnery”, it’s quite hard-edged, there’s not a great.. a tenderness in that. He is in danger of associating her with his mother, at least with womankind. I think all the way through there’s that problem with womankind, he says as much in the very beginning.
Well, I’ve seen this production several times now and the end of that scene is always utterly chilling. I asked Simon Keenlyside just how over the edge he felt Hamlet had slipped:
SK: It is so appalling that you think “Is this man slightly unhinged ?” I don’t know. How far do you have to be pushed before you do become unhinged ? I often wonder that. When you hear about soldiers in war situations, when you read about the Vietnamese war atrocities or any war’s atrocities you think how far does a normal man have to be pushed before they do something which in normal circumstances would be considered lunacy. It’s interesting – where is the border ? So, the question’s enough, isn’t it ?
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