Friday, April 25, 2014

The Opera Version of "Hamlet" (2004)

On Wednesday, I celebrated Shakespeare's birthday, and my own, by finishing watching this opera with my best friend, Deborah.  It's a filmed version of the Barcelona Opera's production from 2004.  We'd started it last week, but... it's three hours long.  Takes a while to get through when I only have between forty-five minutes and an hour of watching time one or two nights a week.

I should mention that I haven't seen that many operas.  I went to see three of them performed live while in college (La Boheme, Otello, and Tosca), but those are the only others I've ever seen in their entirety.  I've seen bits and pieces of various operas on YouTube and so on, but I didn't grow up watching or listening to opera.  We listened to a lot of classical music, but not much opera, other than an aria here and there on some compilation CD or other.  However, Deborah was raised on opera the way I was raised on westerns, and she is very passionate about it.  If you want to know her more opera-oriented thoughts on this, read her post here from when she first watched it a couple years ago.

So anyway, the music for this was written by Ambroise Thomas back in 1868, and the libretto by Michel Carre and Jules Barbier is based not on Shakespeare's text, but on the French adaptation of Shakespeare's play by none other than Alexandre Dumas, pere.  (You can read an English translation of Dumas' French adaptation here -- it's quite funny.)  So there are some pretty big differences in the story, which is mostly what I'll talk about here.

Spoilers from here on out.

Simon Keenlyside as Hamlet.

The biggest difference between this opera and Shakespeare's play is that at the end, (drumroll please) Hamlet is still alive!  And is declared king!

Yeah.  Whoa.  I was pretty shocked.  Part of me was so happy that Hamlet (Simon Keenlyside) didn't die, and part of me was like, "But where's my catharsis?  Where's my tragedy?"  And if you're going, "Dude, how can Hamlet get to be king when he totally just killed King Claudius in front of pretty much everyone in the castle -- they can't reward regicide with the crown!"  Well, they fixed that by having the Ghost (Markus Hollop) appear to everyone and declare that Claudius had murdered him, so everyone knows Hamlet is justified in killing Claudius.  Also clears up the whole "Is Hamlet just imagining this Ghost?" question -- if everyone's seeing it, he's clearly not mad and delusional and what have you.

The Ghost condemns Claudius in front of everyone.

Okay.  That's the biggest difference.  Also, Gertrude doesn't die.  Neither do Polonius or Laertes!  But Ophelia (Natalie Dessay) does.  She gets to do her mad scene all alone on stage, singing on and on about how she thinks she's married to Hamlet now, and she talks to some imaginary people about how lovely her wedding was and how much Hamlet adores her, and gets crazier and crazier, finally stabbing and cutting herself a few times before collapsing on stage, then getting up and wandering off, presumably to drown her sorrows permanently.  She got a HUGE standing ovation, which Dessay totally earned.

Ophelia singing about flowers.

Other differences?  Laertes (Daniil Shtoda) was completely fine with Ophelia and Hamlet being in love.  Instead of warning her not to let Hamlet turn her head before he leaves (this time to go to Norway, not to Paris), Laertes tells Hamlet to take care of Ophelia and says he knows he's leaving her in good hands, they'll take care of each other, etc.  I really liked this Laertes so much (up until the end, when I decided I hated him forever because he's a dirty rat).  Also, Polonius was barely in it and never gave anybody any advice.  Huh.

Hamlet and Ophelia.  Because I couldn't find another place to put this and I love it.

And Gertrude (Beatrice Uria-Monzon) was totally in on Claudius' plot to kill King Hamlet.  Definitely an accomplice.  And really freaky looking.  She had this wig that made her forehead HUGE and made her look like she was an alien from Star Trek:  The Next Generation or something.  Weird.  She was very conniving, and pretty much drove Ophelia crazy by convincing her Hamlet would marry her, and then when he instead was playing mad and wouldn't have anything to do with Ophelia, yeah, it could only end in tears.

Gertrude and her wonky wig.

Horatio (Lluis Sintes) was barely in this, which saddened me.  Had no feel of close friendship with Hamlet, seems about as important as Marcellus.  In fact, by the end, I'd forgotten which of the dudes in trench coats on stage was Horatio.  I was not amused -- that was my absolute least-favorite change from Shakespeare's play.  Horatio is extremely important, folks -- I know I like to natter on about Laertes a lot, but honestly, I love Horatio almost as much as Hamlet himself, and without him, poor Hamlet is totally friendless and alone and unhappy and... badness, okay?  Much badness.

I'm not going to say much about the music.  Some parts were lovely, but nothing stuck in my head.  But I wasn't really watching this for the music, so that's okay.  Simon Keenlyside as Hamlet and Natalie Dessay as Ophelia were very moving, and I will absolutely watch this again just for them.  Keenlyside is one of those rare opera singers who can not only sing beautifully but also act very, very well, and I totally recommend this version because of him.  I'm really sad, though, that he sang this role at NYC's Metropolitan Opera while I lived in Connecticut, and I never went to see it.  At the time, neither Deborah nor I knew who he was, and I had never seen the opera, didn't know anything about it other than it was a retelling of Hamlet, so I didn't go.  Such a mistake.  Sigh.

Anyway, what else shall I talk about?  Costumes!  The costumes were wacky.  Most of them.  Deborah says that's pretty par for European opera productions.  The soldiers and Laertes all wore trench coats with metal breastplates -- huh?

This is Laertes in one of those trench-coat-and-breastplate ensembles.

And then there were these gonzo red robe thingies at the beginning.  Yeah...

Gertrude and Claudius and their loyal subjects.

But.  Hamlet looked scrumptious.  What else matters?  He generally looked like this:

Looooooooooove those coats.

But sometimes he looked like this:

In his trench coat at Ophelia's grave.  Also nice.

And when he looked like this, I melted completely away:

Suspenders!  And you can't see it, but also he has bare feet.  Swoon.

So.  I wasn't going to add this to my "Hamlet Comparisons" file because it's not Shakespeare's text and so many of the characters are in it less, and things are so different.  But I'm going to anyway, just leaving some ungraded because they don't apply.  Here's how they stack up:

Hamlet:  A
Horatio:  N/A
Laertes:  F for making me Furious (B+ for everything except the ending)
Ophelia:  B+
Claudius:  C
Gertrude:  C
Polonius:  N/A
Overall Production:  N/A because it has so many differences.

I'm really glad I saw it, and if you're somehow tired of watching the same Hamlet performances you've seen before and want something new, absolutely find and watch this.

Did I mention this Hamlet and Ophelia were very sweet together?

Is this movie family friendly?  As much as any version of Hamlet can be.  There's lots of death, accusations of marital unfaithfulness, some mild curse words in the English subtitles, and a pretty creepy ghost.  Not for little kids.

Did I mention the Ghost is creepy?  And amazing!


  1. Nice review! You know, I'd totally forgotten I'd written up something about it! I suspect several things, such as Ophelia and her knife, and Laertes' rat-fink stabbing of Hamlet are unique to this staging. The plot in my CD booklet says they have a duel, which this version didn't bother with. And in some versions I've read reviews of online, Laertes and Hamlet kill each other... so the mileage varies depending on the staging. I do love that ghost, though! And Simon... well, he's always just wonderful, in every way. :-D

    1. Hamlet lives in the Dumas version, so if the libretto is based on that (which my superficial research on Wikipedia says it is), then it would make sense if he still lives in the opera. And it would also make sense if some versions have him die to be more like Shakespeare's play.

      Simon and the Ghost are superb. Ophelia is quite good. Overall, definitely one I'll watch again at some point!

      Really my F for Laertes is unfair, since I'm supposed to be rating performances and not the character himself, and leaving his rat-fink stabbing aside, I liked him quite well.

    2. Well true, but that stabbing is so dishonorably done, I would also rank him fairly low (not the singer, of course, just the character). On top of the fact that he's jumping to conclusions and Hamlet doesn't even know about Ophelia yet. Just... uncalled for.

      I think I read somewhere that in the time period in France when this was written, your hero had to live. France has had all sorts of funny rules, it seems. Like operas performed there had to have a ballet, etc.

    3. Well, that would explain why there's a ballet involved in the Paris Opera House in The Phantom of the Opera! I always kind of wondered about that.

  2. F for Furious, that's a great rating. Don't change it.

    1. Hee, I won't. I did add a parenthetical B+ for him, but... still furious with him days later.

  3. Wait, you share a birthday with Shakespeare? That's totally awesome! Happy belated birthday, by the way ;)
    This sounds hardly like Hamlet, but I'm glad you enjoyed parts of it. It's nice that Hamlet lives at the end--I love him and I always root for him even though I know he's doomed. - Maggie @ An American in France

    1. :-D Yes, I'm ridiculously pleased at that accident of my birth that put me right there on the 23rd with him. And thanks!

      Yeah, in some ways it was just not Hamlet, but overall, it was. Hamlet himself was unchanged, same goes for Ophelia, and so... I didn't hate it. In fact, I liked it better than three versions of the play I've seen!

      So, as you've guessed, I didn't watch the Christopher Plummer version for Shxpr's birthday -- but I'm really in a Hamletified mood right now, so may try to watch that one too in a week or two.

      And it was nice to see him live -- he won't have an easy time of it, with Ophelia dead and everything, but, he's alive. Also explains why there was no Fortinbras mentioned at all, which I had been wondering about all thru the opera. I have a magnet that says, "Fortinbras should arrive at any moment to turn this mayhem around," so I kept thinking, "Who's going to clean this mess up if there's no Fortinbras?" Turns out Hamlet has to do it himself.

  4. Very interesting, especially since they switched up so many things! I might have to check it out (although Phantom is the only opera I've scene).

    1. Do you mean the musical The Phantom of the Opera by Andrew Lloyd Webber? I've seen the movie version of that several times, and have a couple albums with different casts, and it's great fun. I also have the sheet music, though it's too difficult for me to play very well. But it's not actually opera ;-) Or maybe you could consider it an operetta? It's usually referred to as a musical, though they do sing all the recitative instead of talking, which is more like opera and less like a Rogers & Hammerstein musical, for instance. Just warning you that this is... different. Gotta use subtitles to know what's going on, for one thing.

      Anyway, you can get a used copy of this on Amazon for about $15, which is what I did. It's lovely! And fascinating, with all the changes. If you see it, let me know what you think!

  5. I just had to pop on and say happy birthday!!! It's been such a blessing *meeting* you and being able to share thoughts and ideas. :-) You're always so lovely and hospitable and encouraging.

    Oh, and our birthdays fall within a week of each other! How neat is that??? :-)

    1. Thanks! I agree -- we've got the beginnings of a lovely friendship going on here :-)

      And so cool our birthdays are close! Happy birthday to you too!

  6. This looks so good! I am really going to try and find this somewhere so i can watch it! Looks very interesting

    1. It was definitely fun to see a very new take on the story and characters :-)


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