Messing with Shakespeare is always a tricky business. In general, the ones who tamper least-such as Kenneth Branagh's Henry V-fare best.
All the more reason to approach with trepidation the Metropolitan Opera's production of Ambroise Thomas' Hamlet. Composed in 1868 in French, it runs a full five acts and three-plus hours. A purist could proclaim sight unseen: "What's not to hate?"
But there's no "foul crime" here. March 16 was opening night and-in an unusual move-the Met will broadcast the play to theaters nationwide on April 14. On opening night, baritone Simon Keenlyside was riveting as Hamlet, but what made the three hours fly by was the supporting cast-especially Jennifer Larmore, whose earthy voice, royal gowns, and commanding stage presence made her a tormented and sinister Gertrude.
The real star, however, was Shakespeare himself. Though the libretto wanders far from the original text, the changes seemed less an edit than an homage. For example, the "Alas poor Yorick" speech-which Hamlet typically delivers with skull in hand-is excised from Act Five. But what is left delights: A gravedigger exhumes a skull and rolls it across the stage. Hamlet gives the skull a double-take-with a sense of wistfulness-and moves on. The spirit of the speech is perfectly preserved in this subtle gesture.
And what is the true spirit of Shakespeare? That question has been the source of 500-year-long arguments. He was an artist with one foot each in the medieval and modern worlds, and divine justice and human frailty are always on display. When blood and bodies of kings and princes soil the stage, the sense of catharsis-and the creation of a new world-is palpable.
It's a view of the world that-in the skillful hands of the Metropolitan Opera-has the power to edify and instruct, songs and all.