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A bare-chested Hamlet descends a vertiginous staircase, scarring his torso with a knife. From curtain up, we know we are in an Olivier Py staging, the producer du jour in France and its environs. His trademark bare chests make further appearances with the players and the ghost of his father, a striking figure with a bejewelled head modelled on Damien Hirst’s diamond-studded skull.
My problem with Py’s camp cabaret is that I often expect a drag queen to come on and start miming to Judy Garland. But this Hamlet, a co-production with the Theater an der Wien, where it was unveiled in 2012, manages to rise above this by fleshing out the libretto’s one-dimensional characters. This is far superior to his recent Alceste and Aida for the Paris Opera, although it still suffers from the customary chasm between theatrical intention and unsubtle execution: Laertes is a red-flag-waving rebel and the people of Elsinore parade with clenched fists and banners proclaiming “Liberté” – a clumsy political graft to remind us that the opera was written only a few years before the Paris Commune. Another unforgivable touch occurs in Ophelia’s madness scene, which is ruined by an S&M ballet of youths wearing leather dog masks. This is all a pity as Pierre-André Weitz’s set, a gloomily oppressive grey-bricked vault, provides a superb backdrop for Hamlet’s inner torment.
La Monnaie has nabbed the best for the two key roles. Stéphane Degout’s Hamlet is a model of suave baritone singing and sharp diction, even when he does the full Monty in a bath tub scene with his mother (Jennifer Larmore, on strong form but hampered by transatlantic French). Lenneke Ruiten, from Holland, sings Ophelia like a French native, complete with gorgeous timbre and effortless pirouettes.
Marc Minkowski, now quite as ubiquitous on the conductor’s rostrum as Py is in the director’s chair, gives Ambroise Thomas’s score all it’s got (and more), mixing sophisticated insight with devastating decibels.