To be, or not to be, wasn’t the most urgent question surrounding the Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Ambroise Thomas’ Hamlet, which opened last week. The question was, rather, what would happen to a diva vehicle that had lost its diva. The reason for bringing the opera to the Met, which had not performed it since 1897, was the scheduled presence of the French soprano Natalie Dessay as Ophelia. Ms. Dessay is one of the biggest stars of Peter Gelb’s Met, and Ophelia is one of her calling-card roles, one she has performed several times in this production, directed by Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier, which is new to New York but was first seen in Geneva in 1996. To add to the sense of occasion, these Met performances were to have been her last before she retired the role.
On March 3, though, just under two weeks before the March 16 premiere, the Met announced that, due to illness, Ms. Dessay would be withdrawing from the entire run. She was to be replaced by Marlis Petersen, a German soprano already scheduled to sing Lulu at the Met in May.
There was just one small problem. Ms. Petersen, who was singing a run of Medea in Vienna earlier this month, was not free to come to New York until the evening of Saturday, March 13. She wouldn’t meet her co-star, baritone Simon Keenlyside, until the day before the performance. But Peter Gelb made the call; a coach was sent to Vienna to refresh Ms. Petersen for a role she hadn’t sung since 2006; and she was on for opening night.
It would be wonderful to report that Ms. Petersen had a blazing success as part of an engrossing take on a neglected opera. But she didn’t, and it wasn’t. The rushed replacement seemed crafted more to provide a hook for the press—The Times put up an adoring video titled “Last-Minute Soprano Saves the Opera”—than a satisfying musical or theatrical experience. Ms. Petersen’s voice was sometimes sweetly lyrical in the middle, but often undependable at the top. There were a few notes that simply missed, and others that were uncertain. Even when she sang accurately, though, she didn’t sing distinctively. While she was an attractive presence in the production’s elegant, subtly stylized Victorian-ish gowns, she seemed to recede into the background.
Say what you will about Natalie Dessay, but she doesn’t recede. This production has been tailored so specifically to Ms. Dessay’s strengths, with the DVD to prove it, that it’s little wonder that another singer might look out of place. The production’s mad scene begins with Ophelia sitting on a couch, her knees drawn up to her chin and looking like Claire Danes in My So-Called Life, the type of “contemporary” touch that Ms. Dessay relishes. The production is stark, and there is very little stage business, which also worked to Ms. Dessay’s advantage by showcasing, with very few distractions, her surprising, mercurial physical presence. In the DVD, when she suddenly begins to seize bunches of flowers from huge urns on the floor, you almost gasp, and when she starts to slowly slash her wrists to the haunting Middle Eastern melody, it’s terrifying. All this seems duller with the less charismatic Ms. Petersen. She was certainly game, and went through all the motions—the Claire Danes pose, the flowers, the knife—but failed to make an equivalent impact.
There wasn’t much of an impact from the production itself, either. There are arresting moments: The chorus stalks menacingly out of the upstage darkness at the top of the show. And hulking, rusted-looking flats, like Richard Serra masses, loom beautifully over the final act. But the directorial style often seems to be tacking wildly between abstraction and realism, tradition and avant-grade. Certain characters, particularly Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude, are encouraged to act (or overact) expressionistically, but Hamlet himself is in postmodern theater mode, instructed not to look at the people he’s singing at. Except when he’s expressionistic, too, dousing himself with wine at the end of Act II. There would be an interesting point in Hamlet inhabiting an entirely different style from everyone else, but that idea isn’t seen through.
The staging is stark, which would be fine if the directors truly committed to that choice, but they add clutter by defining the playing spaces are defined by fairly realistic flats with chimney details, smeared with pinkish paint. They’re not pretty or evocative; they look cheap. The look is “the same No-Time, No-Place, Kinda-Contemporary, Kinda-19th-Century aesthetic as many of the company’s recent productions,” as a review of last month’s Attila on the Web site Parterre Box put it. And just as Attila seemed in its self-conscious stylization to be echoing Robert Wilson without being quite stylized enough, so this Hamlet evokes the spareness of Robert Carsen’s work without being quite spare enough. Mr. Leiser and Mr. Caurier write in their program note that “directors must not just make images, but theater,” but here they made neither.
A few days later, over at New York City Opera, a revival of Mark Lamos’ 1998 Madama Butterfly was a reminder of the fusion of image and theater that the Hamlet directors invoke so reverently and then fail to achieve. The Butterfly, too, is spare, consisting of little but steps that span the width of the stage and two sets of screens, one at the top of the steps and one at the bottom. Yet as the lights shift, this simple production—at first it even looks, yes, a tad cheap—transforms into something both elegant and deeply affecting. And the Chinese soprano Shu-Ying Li, big-voiced and ferociously focused, makes the final act into one of the many things missing at the Met’s Hamlet: a mad scene you can’t stop watching.