The arrival of a major new artist on the stage of the Met is a cause for celebration for opera lovers. Monday night saw the Met debut of Canadian soprano Jane Archibald in the role of Ophélie, the doomed love interest in Ambroise Thomas' opera Hamlet.
Based (somewhat loosely) on William Shakespeare's Danish tragedy, Hamlet was once one of the most popular operas in the world, played regularly in Paris and at Covent Garden. However, Thomas' romantic score fell out of fashion after World War I. The opera's radically altered ending (the climax takes place at Ophelia's grave) did not help its reputation. Shakespeare it ain't, but Hamlet has some lovely arias, memorable conflict between the Prince (Simon Keenlyside) and his mother (Jennifer Larmore) and stirring choruses. And then there's that Mad Scene.
Ophélie gets the entire fourth act to herself. She is onstage for all of it, sitting in the chapel in Elsinore where she was going to marry Hamlet. The scene calls for light coloratura singing, dizzying interval leaps, and pin-point control of the voice. Thomas leaves the vocal line very exposed, and he expected his Ophelias to carry the weight of the drama as she slowly commits suicide onstage.
Ms. Archibald exceeded the challenges presented by this very long solo scene. Sitting on a couch with a pillow strapped to her belly (a reflection of an unborn child, possibly Hamlet's?) she both sang and acted with great skill. She moved across the bare stage, strewing flowers in her wake singing with fearless agilityin both the high-lying Waltz (she hit the high B flats easily) and the slower Ballade section that followed. As she removed the pillow and life ebbed from her wrists, she floated exquisite notes up the gold ceilng of the Met, her voice depicting Ophélie's ascent from this mortal coil.
There is more to Hamlet than Ophélie of course. Simon Keenlyside was the picture of Danish indecision, fearless in his acting choices. His pleasing baritone makes the Prince a compelling central figure. The powerful scene where he decides whether to kill Claudius (James Morris) and then confronts his mother were the highlights of the third act. Mr. Morris gave a tremendous, restrained performance as Claudius, carrying the weight of his guilt around with him like Wotan's spear. Finally, Ms. Larmore made a strong return to the Met stage. The role of Gertrude is perfect for her mezzo-soprano instrument. And in this version, she survives!
Photo © 2010 Metropolitan Opera.