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    The Netrebko Question

    MONTE CARLO — Anna Netrebko, the superstar Russian soprano, stood on the steps of the ornate Casino de Monte-Carlo, taking photos with friends and watching Aston Martins and Ferraris zoom through the night.“It feels quiet and peaceful here,” she said in a brief interview outside the casino shortly before midnight. “And everybody loves each other, which is very rare.”It was late April, and Netrebko had just finished a performance of Puccini’s “Manon Lescaut” at Opéra de Monte-Carlo. It was not how she had planned to spend the evening: She was supposed to be nearly 4,000 miles away, at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, headlining in another Puccini opera, “Turandot.”After Russia invaded Ukraine, Netrebko announced that she opposed the war but declined to criticize President Vladimir V. Putin, whom she has long supported. Almost overnight she was transformed from one of classical music’s most popular and bankable stars into something of a pariah. Appearances at Teatro alla Scala in Milan, the Zurich Opera and the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg, Germany, were called off. The Met Opera, where she has been the reigning prima donna for years, canceled her contracts for two seasons and warned that she might never return.The Monte Carlo engagement, her first in more than two months, was the start of an effort to rebuild her imperiled career. It was perhaps an unusual setting to stage a comeback: Its 517-seat jewel box of an opera house is attached to the famous casino, with slot machines near the lobby. Netrebko, whose seasons are usually booked years in advance, was invited at the last minute, when a singer contracted the coronavirus and efforts to bring in two other replacements were unsuccessful.But Netrebko was warmly received, winning ovations and shouts of “Brava!” at her final performance. (That same night in New York, Liudmyla Monastyrska, the Ukrainian soprano who replaced her at the Met, was cheered when she wrapped herself in a Ukrainian flag for her curtain calls.)After the performance, as Netrebko walked back to the Hôtel de Paris Monte-Carlo with her husband, the tenor Yusif Eyvazov, who had starred with her in “Manon Lescaut,” she said she felt a reprieve from the scrutiny of critics in the United States and Europe, as well as in Russia, where she had recently come under fire for speaking out against the war.“They shoot you from both sides,” she said, forming her hand into the shape of a gun.Anna Netrebko and her husband, Yusif Eyvazov, performing “Manon Lescaut” in Monte Carlo, part of an effort to rebuild her career.Alain Hanel – OMCClassical music’s answer to BeyoncéAfter the invasion of Ukraine, cultural institutions in the United States and Europe denounced Moscow. And they were confronted with difficult decisions about how to deal with Russian artists.Many cut ties with close associates of Putin — especially the conductor Valery Gergiev, a longtime friend and prominent supporter of the Russian president. Gergiev, who leads the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg, where he nurtured Netrebko’s career, has conducted concerts over the years that were freighted with political meaning, including one in a breakaway region of Georgia and another in Palmyra, after it was retaken by Syrian and Russian forces.Other Western institutions, though, were criticized for overreach after they canceled performances by Russian artists who were not closely identified with politics, and even with some who had spoken out against the invasion.Now many cultural organizations face an uncomfortable question: What to do about Netrebko?Her ties to Putin are not as deep as Gergiev’s, but they are substantial, according to a New York Times review of news reports in Russian and English and public records.Her name appeared on a list endorsing Putin’s election in 2012, and she has spoken glowingly of him over the years, describing him as “a very attractive man” and praising his “strong, male energy.” In 2017, in the run-up to Putin’s re-election, she told a Russian state news agency that it was “impossible to think of a better president for Russia.” She has also occasionally lent support to his policies; she once circulated a statement by Putin on Instagram alongside flexed biceps emojis. In 2014, she donated to an opera house in Donetsk, a war-torn city in Ukraine controlled by Russian separatists, and was photographed holding a separatist flag.Putin, in turn, has showered Netrebko with praise and awards over the years. She was invited to sing at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics and other state celebrations. Last September, on her 50th birthday, he sent a telegram calling her the pride of Russia, and describing her as an “open, charming and friendly person, with an uplifting personality and a clear-cut civic stance.” At a concert celebrating her birthday at the State Kremlin Palace, the president’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, read Putin’s message from the stage.Before the invasion, Netrebko was at the height of her career. With a larger-than-life personality and a taste for extravagance, she built a loyal fan base and was sometimes called classical music’s answer to Beyoncé.Now she hopes to persuade the cultural world to look beyond her ties to Putin. She has hired a crisis communications firm, lobbied opera houses and concert halls for engagements and filed a labor grievance against the Met.Netrebko with Putin when he awarded her the title of People’s Artist of Russia in 2008 at the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg.Dmitry Lovetsky/Associated PressPeter Gelb, the Met’s general manager, said it would be “immoral” to engage her during the war. The Met has worked to rally support for Ukraine, hosting a benefit concert and helping form an orchestra of Ukrainians, to be led by Gelb’s wife, the Canadian Ukrainian conductor Keri-Lynn Wilson. The company recently cut ties with another Russian singer, Hibla Gerzmava, who had also spoken in support of Putin.“She is inextricably associated with Putin,” Gelb said of Netrebko. “She has ideologically and in action demonstrated that over a period of years. I don’t see any way that we could possibly do a back flip.”Netrebko has declined repeated requests for an interview from The New York Times over the past several months.Elsewhere, Netrebko’s comeback is gaining momentum. Several European institutions that had sought distance from her have recently announced plans to engage her, some as soon as next year. In late May, she sang recitals before enthusiastic crowds in Paris and Milan, where her concert at Teatro alla Scala sold out. Italian news outlets declared it a “triumph,” writing, “Anna Netrebko retakes La Scala: flowers and applause after her break for the war.”In other theaters, she has faced boycotts, protests and persistent questions about her ties to Putin.At a concert at the Philharmonie de Paris last month, about 50 Ukrainian activists staged a die-in outside the theater. They played a soundtrack that mixed the music of Tchaikovsky with gunshots and sirens meant to evoke the war. A woman dressed as Netrebko, with fake bloodstains on her dress, danced as the protesters lie still on the ground.‘I’m still a Russian citizen’Netrebko was in Moscow with her husband, her frequent artistic collaborator, when the invasion began, on Feb. 24. The night before, the two had performed in Barvikha, a town of villas and luxury boutiques near Moscow, singing works by Verdi and Puccini before an audience of wealthy Russians. Tickets for the concert, sponsored by the Swiss jeweler Chopard, for which Netrebko serves as a brand ambassador, sold for as much as $2,000 apiece.The trouble for Netrebko started almost immediately. When she and her husband arrived for a concert in Denmark scheduled for the day after the invasion, she was forced to cancel amid an outcry from local politicians.In the days that followed she came under pressure to forcefully denounce the invasion. A diva for the digital age, with more than 700,000 followers on Instagram, she preferred to speak directly to her fans in English and Russian on social media.On Feb. 26, she posted a statement opposing the war. But she also seemed to resent the scrutiny, adding, “Forcing artists, or any public figure, to voice their political opinions in public and to denounce their homeland is not right.” In another post, alongside heart and praying hands emojis, she shared a text that used an expletive to refer to her Western critics, saying they were “as evil as blind aggressors.”As her cancellations mounted, her behavior grew more unpredictable. In early March she sent a photo on WhatsApp to a senior executive at Deutsche Grammophon, her longtime label, who had been trying to reach her, according to a person briefed on the photo, who was granted anonymity to discuss private interactions. The photo showed what appeared to be Netrebko’s hand holding a bottle of tequila up to a television with Putin on the screen, the person said. Her decision to send the photo frustrated friends and advisers, who saw it as unprofessional and worried it could further damage her career, the person said. Netrebko’s representatives declined to comment on the photo.Netrebko has a history of courting controversy. When the Met tried to stop her from using makeup to darken her skin during a production of “Aida” in 2018, concerned that the practice recalled blackface, she went to a tanning salon instead. The next year, appearing with dark makeup in a production of “Aida” at the Mariinsky, she wrote on Instagram, “Black Face and Black Body for Ethiopian princess, for Verdi greatest opera! YES!”As the war intensified, the Met’s general manager, Gelb, called Netrebko’s representatives and asked her to denounce Putin. Netrebko demurred, and during their last conversation, Netrebko told Gelb she had to stand with her country, Gelb said. Gelb, who had made Netrebko a cornerstone of his efforts to rejuvenate the company, canceled her contracts and said she might never return to the Met.Netrebko, a citizen of Russia and Austria who lives in Vienna, has since made it clear that she would not criticize Putin. “No one in Russia can,” she said in an interview with Die Zeit, a German newspaper, published this month. “Putin is still the president of Russia. I’m still a Russian citizen, so you can’t do something like that. Do you understand? So I declined to make such a statement.”“Anna Netrebko retakes La Scala,” one Italian news outlet wrote after Netrebko performed a sold-out recital there in May.Brescia and Amisano, via Teatro alla Scala‘I am guilty of nothing!’Netrebko and Putin have crossed paths for decades, sharing a friendship with Gergiev, whom Netrebko has called her “godfather in music.” It was at the Mariinsky, run by Gergiev, that Netrebko made her career, rising from a promising vocal student who washed the theater’s floors as a part-time job to become one of the company’s biggest stars.From his perch in the royal box at the Mariinsky, Putin often saw Netrebko perform, going back to at least 2000, when she was 28 and starred as Natasha Rostova in Prokofiev’s “War and Peace,” according to the Russian newspaper Kommersant. Netrebko was the “undisputed star of the performance,” the newspaper wrote.Netrebko became one of Russia’s most famous cultural ambassadors, and in 2008 Putin awarded her the title of People’s Artist, the country’s highest honor for performers, at a ceremony in St. Petersburg that also featured Gergiev.Netrebko, in turn, seemed to embrace Putin’s brand of nationalism. She has been photographed wearing the black-and-orange St. George ribbon, a symbol of the Russian military that has become popular among Putin supporters, and a T-shirt celebrating a victory in World War II.“I am always unambiguously for Russia and I perceive attacks on my country extremely negatively,” she said in a 2009 interview with a Russian state-owned newspaper, in which she denounced foreign news coverage of the war in Georgia.How the Ukraine War Is Affecting the Cultural WorldCard 1 of 6Gavriel Heine. More

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    At the Met This Season, Opera Was Icing on the Cake

    Amid a labor battle, the continuing pandemic and war in Ukraine, it often felt as though the real drama was in simply putting on a show.Has there ever been a Metropolitan Opera season like the one that just ended? In which the stuff onstage — the homicidal brides, mystical pharaohs and longing stepsons — felt so anticlimactic? Over the past eight months, amid a labor battle, a pandemic that surged again and again, and a war, it was as if the real drama was in simply getting the doors open. Once that was achieved, what followed was almost beside the point.Or, to put it more accurately, what followed was like icing on the cake. Rarely has it felt so sweet to be inside the gilded Met, has opera seemed — whatever you thought of a given work, singer or production — so much a gift. A groundswell of gratitude was palpable throughout the season, which finished on Saturday evening with Verdi’s “Rigoletto.”You felt it in the explosive ovation that greeted a virtuosic step-dance sequence in Terence Blanchard’s “Fire Shut Up in My Bones,” which opened the season as a double milestone: the first production since the pandemic lockdown in March 2020, and the first work at the Met by a Black composer since its founding in 1883.You felt it in the cheers for Lise Davidsen’s vast, star-making Ariadne; Nadine Sierra’s sensual Lucia di Lammermoor; Matthew Polenzani’s earnestly agonized Don Carlos; Allan Clayton’s quivering Hamlet; and the chorus’s shimmering “Prayer for Ukraine” at a benefit concert in March.The soprano Lise Davidsen in the title role of Strauss’s “Ariadne auf Naxos.”Marty Sohl/Met OperaYou felt it in the roaring curtain calls at the revival of “Akhnaten,” which proved once again that Philip Glass’s idiom has been welcomed by the Met audience as wholeheartedly as those of Mozart or Puccini.Around this time a year ago, it seemed like the great battle would be returning after a canceled 2020-21 season. Bad blood was in the air: The Met’s unions were furious at the company’s general manager, Peter Gelb, for his insistence that unpaid furloughs were the only way it could survive the long lockdown. The situation grew so bitter that it seemed possible a strike or lockout would keep the Met closed past the planned opening night.But the promise of coming back after 18 months proved too strong to resist, and the unions and management came — warily — to terms. No one who was at the outdoor performances of Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony over Labor Day weekend, or, especially, at the return indoors for Verdi’s Requiem on the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, will forget the relief and joy of the Met once again making live music at Lincoln Center.The Met returned to indoor performance with a concert of Verdi’s Requiem for the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.Richard Termine/Met OperaThe opening months of the season had an air of triumph. There was the sold-out success of “Fire Shut Up in My Bones”; a series of ambitious revivals, including the Met’s first performances of the brooding original version of Mussorgsky’s “Boris Godunov” and Wagner’s six-hour “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg,” the longest opera in its repertory; and Matthew Aucoin’s recent “Eurydice,” in which a sprawling orchestra thrashed Sarah Ruhl’s winsome version of the Orpheus myth.Then the rise of the Omicron variant in late fall began to claim performances, festivals and concerts. The Vienna State Opera was closed for almost a week. But the Met buckled down, strengthening its already stringent health protocols and dipping into a broad pool of covers to fill in for sick artists. With luck on its side, it stayed open through the winter — and into yet another rise in cases this spring.Broadway shows kept canceling at the last minute or closing entirely, but the Met, America’s largest performing arts institution, never did. That will be Gelb’s legacy from this troubled period, along with the landmark “Fire” and the unrelenting position he took after the invasion of Ukraine, when he declared that the Met would sever ties with artists who supported President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia. That ultimatum had one singer in mind: the Russian soprano Anna Netrebko, the company’s leading diva, who criticized the war but remained silent about Putin. In a coup, Gelb replaced her as Puccini’s Turandot with the Ukrainian soprano Liudmyla Monastyrska, who drove the audience wild when she wrapped herself in a Ukrainian flag to take her bow.The Ukrainian soprano Liudmyla Monastyrska wrapped herself in her country’s flag to take her bow after “Turandot.”Lila Barth for The New York TimesGelb’s Netrebko decision wasn’t universally praised, and other major opera houses now seem to be inclined to welcome her back, classifying her as merely a prominent Russian, not a hardcore Putinist. But within the Met, the moral clarity of the war proved a unifying force: At the benefit concert for Ukraine, some players in the orchestra even applauded Gelb, their nemesis during the grueling furlough, as he declared from the stage that they were “soldiers of music.”Somewhere in the midst of politics and the virus was opera. Under the focused baton of Sebastian Weigle, “Boris Godunov” was memorably grim in the concentrated form Mussorgsky gave it before a hodgepodge of revisions; “Meistersinger,” expansive enough that it really does seem to convey a whole world, was relaxed and sunny, and gently comic as led by Antonio Pappano.Simon Stone’s technically savvy staging of Donizetti’s “Lucia,” set amid the malaise of a contemporary postindustrial American town, didn’t translate its bold concept into a convincing portrayal of its pathetically suffering title character. The Met’s de facto house director these days, David McVicar, offered a grayly old-fashioned production of Verdi’s “Don Carlos.”Simon Stone’s new staging of “Lucia di Lammermoor” had a bold concept but little grasp of its title character.Sara Krulwich/The New York TimesDavidsen, in Strauss’s “Ariadne auf Naxos,” a mythic creation of flooding tone, also lavished her soaring soprano on Eva in “Meistersinger” and Chrysothemis in Strauss’s “Elektra,” her voice almost palpable against your skin. The mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard brought silvery elegance to Cherubino in Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Figaro” and the Composer in “Ariadne.”There were sympathetic soprano star turns from Ailyn Pérez as a fiery soloist in the Sept. 11 Requiem and a girlish Tatiana in “Eugene Onegin,” Eleonora Buratto as a reserved Madama Butterfly and Elena Stikhina as a kindly Tosca — as well as from Sonya Yoncheva, in a solo recital of shadowy sensitivity.While Blanchard’s score moved comfortably between bars, college parties and fraught, tender nocturnes, “Fire” was fairly turgid as drama, its individual sequences clear but the broader conflicts driving its characters obscure. (It was telling that the most dazzling sequences in this opera were Camille A. Brown’s dances.)Perhaps most remarkable about the offerings this season were the three — count ’em — works from the past five years: “Fire,” “Eurydice” and Brett Dean’s “Hamlet,” which set to seething music Matthew Jocelyn’s moodily distilled version of Shakespeare. The Met has not had so many recent operas on a single year’s lineup since the early 1930s, even if that number is notable only in the context of the stubbornly backward-looking world of opera.Not long ago, the idea of three contemporary operas in a Met season would have been preposterous. This was largely because the company’s longtime music director, James Levine — while he expanded the repertory significantly and presided over a handful of premieres — didn’t prioritize newer work.Among the Met’s contemporary offerings this season was “Hamlet,” featuring, from left at front, Allan Clayton in the title role and Brenda Rae as Ophelia.Sara Krulwich/The New York TimesBut his successor, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, agrees with Gelb that contemporary operas are crucial, both artistically and for expanding the company’s audience. And Nézet-Séguin is putting his money where his mouth is: He conducted both “Fire” and “Eurydice,” and leads Kevin Puts’s “The Hours” in the fall and Blanchard’s “Champion” next spring. (The early months of this season, though, were an exhausting workload when coupled with his duties as music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra: He dropped out of a run of “Le Nozze di Figaro” to take a four-week sabbatical around the new year.)The continuing transition out of the Levine era has been obvious not just in the repertory, but also in the orchestra’s sound — which was noticeably lighter and lither in three works closely associated with Levine: “Meistersinger”; Stravinsky’s “The Rake’s Progress,” led by Susanna Mälkki; and “Don Carlos,” which Nézet-Séguin brought to the Met for the first time in its original French.This change is for better and worse. The ensemble played these pieces with brisker transparency and perhaps more varied colors; Nézet-Séguin’s textures in “Don Carlos,” airier than Levine’s, felt of a piece with the elegant nasality of French. In “Hamlet,” conducted by Nicholas Carter, the orchestra was ferocious. But a certain grandeur is now missing, more often than not: the weight of Levine’s “Meistersinger” prelude, for one thing, and the gleefully straight-faced bombast of Baba the Turk’s entrance in his performances of “The Rake’s Progress.”Even a frequent operagoer or critic can’t see everything or everyone. I missed a new, family-friendly abridgment of Massenet’s fairy-dust “Cendrillon.” And after opening a new production of Verdi’s “Rigoletto” on New Year’s Eve, the baritone Quinn Kelsey — acclaimed in the title role — came down with Covid-19 and missed a few performances, including the one I attended. But I got to see his credible replacement: the baritone Michael Chioldi, finally getting his first big role at the Met after years as a stalwart of the New York opera scene.That was one of four performances at the opera house that I watched in a single weekend in early January, during the first Omicron wave. Such a marathon was an extraordinary exclamation point on the Met’s achievement in merely keeping the lights on.It wasn’t enough to taste opera after a year-and-a-half fast. I wanted to gorge. More

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    ‘A Vocal Figure Skater’ Makes His Mark as an Operatic Hamlet

    The British tenor Allan Clayton’s portrayal of the title role in Brett Dean’s opera is personal, emotional — and a breakthrough.The tenor Allan Clayton was in near-constant motion and almost always onstage. At a dress rehearsal of Brett Dean’s “Hamlet” at the Metropolitan Opera a few weeks ago, he staggered, capered, fell to his knees, leaped into a grave and dueled to the death — all while singing Dean’s difficult, vocally shimmering, emotionally shifting music. Taking a bow afterward, alone on the huge stage, Clayton looked slightly dazed, drenched in sweat and understandably exhausted.“Hamlet,” which runs through June 9 at the Met, was a breakthrough for the British-born Clayton when the opera premiered at the Glyndebourne Festival in 2017.Writing in The New York Times, the music critic Zachary Woolfe said Clayton was even better at the Met. “His tone is sometimes plangently lyrical, sometimes sarcastically sharp,” Woolfe wrote. “Without losing the character’s desperation, Clayton now makes Hamlet more persuasively antic and wry — more real.”In an interview a few days before the May 13 Met premiere, Clayton said he was both “a more canny singer” and more stable than when he first sang Hamlet. “It is a wonderful role,” he said. “But emotionally it’s very hard. It dredges up issues in my personal life which were true in 2017 and are still true now, and completely inform what I do onstage.”His father, he explained, died when he was in his 20s; his relationship with his mother is difficult; he went through a traumatic breakup with a girlfriend during the rehearsal period for the opera. In short, his life had some eerie parallels with that of Hamlet. As he told The Telegraph in 2018, “an awful lot of difficult stuff got drawn on and dredged up.”Now, he said, he is “better able to distinguish between the character and my reality.”Clayton’s Hamlet with, from left, Sarah Connolly as Gertrude and Rod Gilfry as Claudius.Sara Krulwich/The New York TimesClayton offstage looks very much like his Hamlet onstage: bearded, slightly rumpled, in jeans and a loose T-shirt. Friendly and funny, he takes the British art of self-deprecation to Olympic levels and is clearly prone to excessive self-doubt. Just two months ago, he said, he had to lecture himself sternly when a dress rehearsal of Benjamin Britten’s “Peter Grimes” had gone poorly in his view (his description is colorfully unprintable) a day before its Royal Opera House premiere.“I often go through, I can’t do this, it’s too hard, too stressful, and I’m not doing anything useful, like being a doctor or nurse or teacher,” he said. “But I sat in my flat on that day and thought, If I am not going to enjoy myself, why do this job?”His performance was acclaimed by the British press. “His tenor has gained heft,” said John Allison, the editor of Opera Magazine, in a telephone interview. “And he had the lyricism and the power, and a rawness and vulnerability that made his portrayal of the character as an oddball dreamer so affecting.” (Clayton is scheduled to perform the role again, at the Metropolitan Opera House, in October.)Clayton, who grew up in Malvern in the southwest of England, began to sing at 8, in his school choir, led by a teacher who followed the Vienna Boys Choir model, and had the students do both concerts and tours. At 10, he won a choral scholarship to the Worcester Cathedral School, founded by Henry VIII. “We sang everything,” he said. “Carols by Britten, work by George Benjamin, as well as the older things.”Although Clayton modestly said he “wasn’t particularly talented at anything,” he was encouraged to apply to Cambridge University. “No one in my family had even been to university,” he said. He was accepted as a choral scholar, and began to learn about opera and lieder while studying archaeology and anthropology. “Something just clicked in the second year,” he said of his singing. “I thought maybe I could do this.”After earning a postgraduate degree at the Royal Academy of Music, work came steadily. Pivotal experiences, he said, included several roles with the Leeds-based Opera North and his first title role, in Britten’s “Albert Herring” at Glyndebourne in 2008.But performing Castor in Barrie Kosky’s 2011 production of Rameau’s “Castor and Pollux” proved “a game-changer,” Clayton said. “I realized I wasn’t a particular ‘type’ of tenor, neither Italianate or ‘English.’ I just sing like I sing.”“I realized I wasn’t a particular ‘type’ of tenor, neither Italianate or ‘English.’ I just sing like I sing,” Clayton said.Tonje Thilesen for The New York TimesKosky, who has directed Clayton in six operas, called him his “tenor muse” in an interview. “He has the openness and ability to access his inner emotional landscape that you more usually find with actors,” he said, “but with a distinctive and beautiful voice.”A small role in George Benjamin’s “Written on Skin” (2012) was Clayton’s first experience of having a part written for him. “To have someone write something for you, do an almost forensic investigation into your vocal ability, was thrilling,” he said.Working with Dean on “Hamlet” was even more intense. First, Dean said, he recorded Clayton delivering several of the character’s soliloquies, “to hear where his voice sat, and his natural rhythms.” In workshops, Dean could “see and hear how he used the words and that influenced how the rest of the piece unfolded.”By the time he finished writing the second act, he added, “Allan’s ease at singing high without having to belt it out, the flexibility and ease in his voice, were very much in my head.”Matthew Jocelyn, whose libretto boldly cuts and reweaves different folio versions of Shakespeare’s text, said hearing Clayton in the workshops was useful in both practical and intuitive ways. “He is a vocal figure skater,” he said, and “has that mobility that allows him to twirl and to land, to go to the extremes, both emotionally and vocally. Basically, he showed us we didn’t need to be afraid of anything.”Clayton said he read and researched the play, but he felt he had to be as truthful and personal as possible in the part. It felt natural, he added, to explore Hamlet’s darkness and imbue him with a febrile physicality. “I move easily, have always liked sport, and it seemed like a natural extension of Hamlet’s character,” he said. “He is light on his feet both mentally and physically.”The director of the opera, Neil Armfield, said that Clayton’s freedom as a performer made many of the staging ideas come to life. “He is a beautiful physical performer, has the freedom of a ballet dancer without any self-consciousness,” he said. “That fueled a physical sense of something adolescent about Hamlet, his attachment to grief, his breaking of the social rules, his mischievousness and hyperactive glee.”Clayton is at an important moment in his career, said the conductor Mark Elder, who has worked with him on several occasions, most recently on “Peter Grimes.” Clayton’s voice has filled out, Elder said, “but the strength and passion in his singing has not obscured its delicacy and gentle expressiveness.” The roles he chooses in the next years, Elder added, “are going to be crucial for him.”Asked about this, Clayton hesitated. “Casting directors don’t know what to do with me, and I don’t know what to do with myself,” he said. “But as long as I am working with interesting people and trying new things, I think I’ll be happy.” More

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    Review: Grammy-Winning ‘Akhnaten’ Returns to the Met Opera

    Philip Glass’s portrait of a pathbreaking pharaoh returns to the Metropolitan Opera for the first time since its hit debut there in 2019.It wasn’t so long ago this season — just January — that the Metropolitan Opera’s programming was about as classic as it gets: tried-and-true works by Verdi, Puccini and Mozart.But scan the coming weeks, and you’ll find what looks like a better, more adventurous company. On Thursday, Philip Glass’s “Akhnaten” returned for the first time since its Met debut, in 2019, joining the American premiere last week of Brett Dean’s “Hamlet.” Next to open, on May 30, is a revival of Stravinsky’s “The Rake’s Progress,” in a staging by Jonathan Miller that is older but more stylish than many at the house. By June, “Rigoletto” will stand alone as a holdout of the core repertory.While a break from the Met’s standard programming, “Akhnaten” — the final installment, from 1984, in Glass’s trilogy of “portrait” operas, after the pathbreaking “Einstein on the Beach” and “Satyagraha,” a meditation on Gandhi’s nonviolent movement — may be a surer bet than, say, “Tosca.” When “Akhnaten” belatedly arrived there a few years ago, it was a critical and box office success, one that attracted a visibly younger audience.That run eventually made its way onto a recording that recently won a Grammy Award. This revival is something of a victory lap, with the same conductor and nearly the same cast. Even Thursday’s audience seemed transported from those earlier days. With artists like Erin Markey and Justin Vivian Bond mingling on the theater’s promenade, the scene was more Joe’s Pub than Lincoln Center.There were, though, some crucial differences from 2019. Phelim McDermott’s production, now more lived-in, unfolded with elegant inevitability rather than effort; the score was executed with a clarity and drive absent on the often slack album. And while “Akhnaten” may be one of Glass’s tributes to great men who changed the world — through science, politics and faith — Thursday’s performance of it made a persuasive argument for where the real power lies: with the women.For example, the mezzo-soprano Rihab Chaieb, the cast’s newcomer, as Nefertiti, Akhnaten’s wife. Long presented at the Met in operas from the 18th and 19th centuries, she was singing a new kind of role on Thursday, one she seized with assurance and ringing might. As a partner for Anthony Roth Costanzo, the countertenor who has a virtual monopoly on the title role in this production, her lush, vibrato-rich sound was a productive contrast to his ethereal purity — she grounded and he celestial, they met somewhere in the middle for their long, hypnotically sensual love duet.More powerful yet was the soprano Disella Larusdottir as Queen Tye, Akhnaten’s mother. Penetrating and resonant, she shot out burst-like phrases with nearly mechanical exactitude and endurance, but was also expressive within the discipline. It’s Akhnaten, pioneering a kind of monotheism in his worship of the sun god Aten, who banishes the priests from the temple in Act II. On Thursday, though, the attack seemed to come from Queen Tye, so frightening and forceful was Larusdottir in her delivery.The conductor Karen Kamensek held together what can be an unwieldy production and led a Met Orchestra much more reliably capable than in 2019. She and the ensemble set the tone with the opera’s mood-altering, time-bending prelude. On the recording, propulsive, shifting arpeggios come off as sluggish, with lapses of legato phrasing. Returned to with more experience, along with noticeably more control, the score moved along with crisp transparency and a tense momentum that didn’t let up in the first act. The instrumentalists still have work to do, though. As the show went on, the strings occasionally slid into soft articulation; and the brasses suffered from clumsiness and imprecision, mistakes that can’t be hidden in music that lives or dies on accuracy.McDermott’s production similarly exposes its performers: not only the singers but also a dozen jugglers in catsuits, including Sean Gandini, the show’s choreographer. As scrappy as it is ornate, the staging — with imaginative, thrift-store-find costumes by Kevin Pollard and sets to match by Tom Pye, and artful lighting by Bruno Poet — demands the patience and steadiness of yoga in its movement, as well as an active eye for anyone watching. (At one point, one of Gandini’s people balances atop a large rolling wheel while, on scaffolding above, jugglers toss balls as the chorus does a version of the same thing; playing out amid the spectacle is the funeral of Akhnaten’s father.)It can be a lot to take in, and the metaphor of juggling — its spheres redolent of Akhnaten’s precious sun, their constant and unpredictable motion as precarious as his reign — proves its point too quickly to go on for as long as it does. As ritual, it doesn’t achieve the transcendence of McDermott’s “Satyagraha,” one of the Met’s finest productions, a staging whose visual diversity and inventiveness give way to sublime austerity.Zachary James, left, with Costanzo and members of the juggling ensemble led by Sean Gandini.Ken HowardThe choreography, though, does have its awe-inspiring moments, such as when juggling pins fly around Aaron Blake, as the High Priest of Amon, who — despite the risk of being hit by one — doesn’t even suggest a flinch while singing with a full-bodied tenor sound. Blake’s character is joined by Aye (the bass Richard Bernstein) and General Horemhab (the baritone Will Liverman) to form a tripartite resistance to Akhnaten’s rule, inciting the revolt that ends it and restores the old religious order. The arc of the pharaoh’s reign is recounted in spoken passages by Zachary James, whose towering presence and booming declamations feel thrillingly neither of this time nor world.James assumes the role of a lecturing professor near the opera’s ending, while Costanzo’s Akhnaten appears as a museum display. This is how we remember, McDermott is saying: through history, through exhibition, through the pageantry of opera performance. Glass makes his own version of that point with the centerpiece aria, “Hymn to the Sun,” a setting of a prayer to Aten that ends with an offstage chorus singing the text of Psalm 104 — tracing a direct line from Akhnaten to the monotheism that dominates today.As if that weren’t enough to place Akhnaten in the pantheon of great innovators, the final scene’s music introduces a subtle quotation from “Einstein on the Beach.” Here, Glass doesn’t tidily package his “portraits” trilogy as much as acknowledge it. On Thursday, though, that intrusion was also a reminder: After the triumphs of “Satyagraha” and “Akhnaten,” when will the Met and McDermott give Einstein his due with a production of his own?AkhnatenThrough June 10 at the Metropolitan Opera, Manhattan; metopera.org. More

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    A Donkey Debuts in ‘La Bohème’ at the Met Opera

    Wanda, a 15-year-old seasoned performer, is appearing in the company’s beloved and lavish “La Bohème.”Backstage at the Metropolitan Opera, before the curtain rose on Monday on a revival of Puccini’s “La Bohème,” a donkey in a pink jester’s hat waited patiently for her cue.This was Wanda, a 15-year-old, with handsome brown stripes running down her back and onto her tail. Making her Met debut this season, Wanda plays a brief but notable role in this romantic, tragic opera: During the grand Café Momus scene, she pulls a brightly colored cart full of toys, which the peddler Parpignol hands out to excited children.In Franco Zeffirelli’s lavish production, the moment is an awe-inspiring spectacle, evoking the Latin Quarter in Paris and bustling with some 250 people onstage — and a donkey and a horse, who pulls a hansom cab onstage for a dramatic entrance.Wanda backstage with her handler, Martyn Blackmore, left, and behind her, John Allegra and Nancy Novograd, who runs All Tame Animals. (Allegra is the owner and onstage handler of the horse Lord.)Dina Litovsky for The New York TimesWanda has big hooves to fill. For 16 seasons, the role was played by the same donkey, Sir Gabriel, who was adored by cast members and backstage crew. “He was a big presence at the Met, in ‘Barber of Seville,’ in ‘Bohème’; he was really beloved,” said Nancy Novograd, who runs All Tame Animals, the animal agency that works with the Met. (The agency has also represented hissing cockroaches and lion cubs, among others, for film, fashion, theater and more.)Sir Gabriel retired from opera this year to a farm that Novograd owns in Maryland. This is not a dark euphemism: He has begun a second act as a companion donkey to a mare who lost her partner at a farm down the road. At first, the two were aloof toward each other, standing on either side of the paddock, but after a few months they edged closer and closer, until they finally bonded.Wanda making her way through the Met’s corridors to backstage.Dina Litovsky for The New York TimesAnd so Wanda has taken up the mantle in “La Bohème.” She is in her prime — donkeys often live to be 30 to 35 — and has prepared for this moment with a wide variety of roles. She has been in a petting zoo and once stood outside a bar to attract customers. She has starred in commercials. And she is a recurring star of services on Palm Sunday at the Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew, as the donkey that Jesus rides into Jerusalem. This season, though, was her first time on the Met stage — and Novograd said, so far, so good.What makes for a good opera donkey? It’s not so different from what makes for any good opera star. “When it comes to hoofed animals like horses and donkeys, you want one who is bold rather than quiet, which sometimes surprises people,” Novograd said. “There’s a lot going on that might seem frightening or dangerous, and if they’re too timid that will overwhelm them. Confidence is the most important thing, whether it’s a horse or a donkey or a dog.”Every night of the “Bohème” run, Wanda comes in a trailer either from Wallkill, N.Y., or the Bronx, where she stays when she has a steady gig in the city. Novograd and her handlers take Wanda out of her trailer, and head to something called “the horse door,” a large entrance on the street that leads into the labyrinth of hallways in the Met, past costumes in storage, lockers for the cast and stagehands, pieces of the set, and other miscellany behind the curtain. On opening night, Novograd and three men — carrying buckets and shovels in case of an accident — led Wanda and her equine co-star Lord, a dark chestnut horse, to their waiting place backstage, beside Wanda’s colorful cart.Wanda pulling a cart of toys peddled by Parpignol (Gregory Warren).Ken Howard/Metropolitan OperaLord pulls a hansom cab, carrying the character Musetta and her aging, wealthy lover into Café Momus, where they meet Mimì, Rodolfo, and Musetta’s former flame Marcello. It is a dramatic entrance, one that Lord, a 19-year-old former racehorse, has made for years. (He also has a number of other notable roles, including recurring appearances on the television show “The Gilded Age,” and was made up as a zebra in “The Greatest Showman.”) John Allegra, his owner and onstage handler, said, “Anyone, really, could drive this horse.”Allegra owns 45 horses on a farm in Connecticut, many of whom are frequent performers. He had two in a recent revival of “Aida,” whose Triumphal Scene is one of the most animal-centric in opera. “When the horses hear those horns,” Allegra said. “They’re ready.”Backstage at “Bohème,” as Act I got underway, and snatches of arias drifted backstage, the animals and their handlers slowly got their costumes together. Allegra put on his hat and 19th-century period coat for a walk across the stage. Martyn Blackmore, who was leading Wanda, also got into costume. Gregory Warren, who plays Parpignol, appeared in his clown-like makeup and tested out the toys in Wanda’s cart, to see which were attached and which weren’t, so he could distribute them to the children onstage.Donald Maxwell, left, as Alcindoro, with Aleksandra Kurzak as Musetta entering the Café Momus scene.Dina Litovsky for The New York Times“Animals and children,” Warren said. “Having them onstage really changes things up. That’s one of the best things about live performance, that it changes every night.”Wanda’s hat was put on, as was a colorful cloth, blue and gold with purple fringe, that covered her back. Like an experienced starlet, she was unfazed by all the adjusting and fussing. Lord nibbled at her hat, and occasionally the two nuzzled. But Wanda mostly stared into space, her large donkey eyes swiveling.Then everyone sprang into action. “Donkey coming down,” someone yelled, urging people to get out of the way, as the animals were led into the wings. A team of stagehands and handlers attached Lord’s hansom cab, and Musetta and her paramour loaded into it, with their prop shopping packages. A cabby stood on top with a whip, and Allegra, dignified in his period dress, stood at his side.The handler Max Torgovnick, center, with Wanda and, at left, Lord.Dina Litovsky for The New York TimesThe cue finally came, and Wanda led the way out of the wings. She emerged into the commotion of music and crowds, Parpignol peddling his wares, and Mimì and Rodolfo falling in love against the backdrop of the wild, colorful display. It was Wanda’s fleeting moment in the lights.Just as quickly, she ambled across the stage into the wings on the other side, where she was unclipped, undressed, unharnessed, ready to make her way to Wallkill, before she does it all again on Friday.But first: time outside, and hay.“After the show,” Novograd said, “she always gets treats.” More

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    The ‘Hamlet’ Chord: A Composer’s Music of Indecision

    Brett Dean, whose adaptation of the classic play is at the Metropolitan Opera, discusses the four notes that embody Hamlet’s dilemma.One of the boldest things about Brett Dean and Matthew Jocelyn’s “Hamlet,” which runs at the Metropolitan Opera through June 9, is the way that it treats some of the most famous lines in English.Moments into the piece, we meet Hamlet (the tenor Allan Clayton at the Met), muttering a bare fragment of his monologue, “… or not to be. / … or not to be. / … or not to be.” When the time comes for the great soliloquy, though, it takes a strange form. Jocelyn, the librettist, uses text from the untraditional first quarto version of the play, and rather than “To be, or not to be,” Hamlet sings: “… or not to be. / … or not to be. / … or not to be. To be. Ay, there’s the point.”If the libretto mutes some of the prince of Denmark’s turbulent vacillation, the music restores it. High from the balcony boxes whisper tuned gongs, a pair of percussionists playing pianissimo and extremely delicately, one alternating from a B to an F and back, the other from an F sharp to a C sharp.Write the notes out as a single chord, and you draw a tower of fifths wavering over a tritone in the bass. It’s an awkward, dissonant and dark set of intervals that feels like it needs to move, like it must make a choice — though not necessarily urgently, and not in any certain direction.Meet the Hamlet chord, a musical embodiment of the title character’s dilemma. In an interview, Dean explained the dramatic function it plays and discussed his score more broadly. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.There have been many settings of “Hamlet,” from full operas, to overtures, to incidental music. What did you think was most important to bring into your opera from the play?Of course this was all in collaboration with Matthew Jocelyn, who had the first and arguably the hardest job. Matthew said that the thing to remember is that there is no such thing as “Hamlet.” Any “Hamlet” you see has had a lot of decision-making that’s gone into working out the Hamlet story that it wishes to tell, from the three different versions that were published in his lifetime, one of which is very contentious, the first, “bad” quarto.So Matthew got us both to write down the six most important things that we thought had to be part of our Hamlet, and then a second set of six, and then we compared. One thing that was clear from the very start was that it was to be, or not to be — sorry — a domestic story, a family drama, not busying ourselves with geopolitical worlds.The tenor Allan Clayton, on the table, as Hamlet at the Metropolitan Opera.Sara Krulwich/The New York TimesThe score seems to be very explicitly atmospheric; it’s sometimes as if you can almost taste the weather around the castle.One thing that was very important to me was definitely a sense of atmosphere, but in creating an atmosphere it was important that the whole space of the theater resound — that it should feel like being inside Hamlet’s head.I managed that in a couple of ways. One was to have two groups of instruments up in the gods, a mirrored trio on either side of clarinet, trumpet and percussion, and the other was to have a group of singers, which I refer to as the semichorus, with the orchestra, creating a link between the sung world of the stage and the instrumental world of the pit. The musicians who are upstairs make all sorts of sounds with all sorts of things, including stones that are cracked together. There’s an earthiness about a lot of the sounds they make. There’s a primal aspect to the sound that takes you out of just being in an opera house.This sense of theater was important. Neil Armfield, the director, said that you have to take into account that in this piece where so much happens, where there’s so much intrigue and so much philosophy, it’s only when the players arrive that there’s truth — and, for Hamlet, genuine love — in the air. It’s only in theater that we come to the real McCoy, as it were.Within the orchestra, a lot is made of this one chord. Could you describe it to me?It’s only four notes, but you can do a lot with four notes. Wagner’s “Tristan” chord is only four notes as well, although it resolves to another chord of four notes. Although it wasn’t conscious, I swear to God, there are similarities between my so-called “Hamlet” chord and the “Tristan” chord, in that they both have the same augmented fourth — a tritone — at the base of it, F and B.My chord is based on a pair of open, perfect fifths going upward: B, F sharp, C sharp, which is this very open sound, not unknown in American music — it’s that vista music, Copland and so on. But as soon as you color it, destabilize it with the F and the tritone at the bottom, it becomes very different.The chord in “Dust”(Metropolitan Opera)via Brett DeanWhere did that idea come from?It was a passing moment in an earlier piece of mine called “Dispersal.” I heard a performance of it just prior to starting work on “Hamlet.” There was this moment with a big buildup that landed on that chord, set in brass, as a kind of fanfare, and it captivated me as a moment of highest tension.The thing about this chord is that it has that sense of needing to move somewhere else. I started playing around with it, and, indeed, the piece starts just with an open fifth, the B and the F sharp. B also is a prominent note in the score. It’s bang in the middle of Allan’s register; it’s bang in the middle of the treble stave; it’s called H in German.We last spoke for a story about the influence of Berg’s “Wozzeck” and, like that opera, your “Hamlet” has a big crescendo on a B as well.Yeah, there were these things emerging. So it starts with the first open fifth, which has this kind of Wagnerian, “Rheingold” feeling to it, setting up an open expanse, then, not long into it, the low F natural comes in against the F sharp above, which really disturbs it. The chorus sing “Dust, quintessence of dust” on that chord, even before Hamlet has sung his first opening lines.The chord building at the start of the opera(Metropolitan Opera)That’s how it started, and then I worked on ways it wants to expand. Wagner mapped out all his progressions almost to the word of where his motives went. For me, it was a lot more instinctive; there’s a lot of my process that is, well, “We’ll see where this goes.” It was, though, a place to return to.There’s another example where I add a low C natural and turn it into this breathless and restless ostinato: In Scene 6, after the performance of the play, when Claudius storms out and Hamlet realizes he’s caught his man, he sings, “Now could I drink hot blood.” Then it returns in the point in the final scene, where he sings “the point envenomed, too” and has decided that Claudius is going to meet his maker. There it’s this push that spurs him on.The chord as an ostinato(Metropolitan Opera)via Brett DeanCould you sum up its dramatic function as a whole?The thing about the chord is that because of its need to move — not necessarily to resolve in the “Tristan” chord way — it seemed to encapsulate that the situation demands action. But Hamlet is undecided what that action should be, which is somehow his tragedy. More

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    Review: ‘Hamlet’ Boldly Engulfs the Metropolitan Opera

    Brett Dean and Matthew Jocelyn’s adaptation of the classic play is both traditional and innovative, elegant and passionate.An opera composer would need the epic gifts and epic gall of a Richard Wagner to consider an adaptation of “Hamlet” and think: “Yup, I’ve got this.”“My initial response,” Brett Dean has ventured more modestly, “was to say no, that I couldn’t possibly tackle something that big.”But about 10 years ago, Dean put aside his reservations and began to tackle the play, with Matthew Jocelyn by his side as librettist. And, boldly slashing and reconfiguring Shakespeare’s text while setting it to a score assured in both crashes and whispers, they tackled it to the ground.Now at the Metropolitan Opera, Dean and Jocelyn’s “Hamlet” is brooding, moving and riveting. These two artists have put a softly steaming small choir in the orchestra pit, and musicians in balcony boxes for fractured fanfares. And, through acoustic means and groaning subwoofers alike, they have put the agonized characters nearly inside your bloodstream.It’s a work both traditional and innovative, elegant and passionate — a hit, to quote the play badly out of context, a very palpable hit.From left, Sarah Connolly (Gertrude), Rod Gilfry (Claudius), Clayton, William Burden (Polonius) and Rae, with John Relyea on the ground.Sara Krulwich/The New York Times“Hamlet” was already admirable in the 1,200-seat, jewel-box theater at the Glyndebourne Festival in England. It premiered there in 2017, just 50 miles from the Globe in London, where the original play was performed some 400 years ago. When a work succeeds in such an intimate space, there’s no guarantee that it will have the same impact in the nearly 4,000-seat Met.But “Hamlet” doesn’t merely fill the Met. It engulfs the enormous house. This transfer is no compromise or pale echo; when it opened on Friday, the two-act opera felt more powerful and coherent than it did five years ago.At Glyndebourne, the piece made a coolly virtuosic impression, coming off more as a clever meditation on the play than as a deep or affecting inhabiting of it. But it was dazzling musically, and no less so at the Met. From its first sepulchral rumble in the dark to the lonely ending — papery wrinkles of snare drum; a cello solo high and yearning enough to mimic a viola; quietly breathless winds — Dean’s score contains multitudes and mysteries.As the story progresses, there are violent explosions and simmering fogs of sound, out of which the voices emerge, emoting at their extremes but ineffably human, too. Electronic auras seem to swirl around the audience, aided by the two antiphonal groups in the balcony boxes on either side of the proscenium — each with a percussionist, clarinetist and trumpeter.Those percussionists are abetted by three more in the pit, handling an army of instruments usual and not, including temple bells, junk metal, glass and plastic bottles, aluminum foil, newspaper, and a drum called, aptly, a lion’s roar. This is an opera that blasts and scrapes, flickers and droops, with growling aggression giving way to delicate twinkling.Conducted by Nicholas Carter, in his company debut, the Met’s ensemble was as focused and rich on Friday as the London Philharmonic Orchestra had been at Glyndebourne.But whether it was a change in my perception or the grander new surroundings, or both, the union of Dean’s score and Jocelyn’s libretto — a spirited yet deadly serious mash-up of the play’s different versions — now felt more convincing. The opera seems to have grown into itself. Without losing its patient, ritualistic grimness or its games with theatricality, it has stronger narrative propulsion. What seemed episodic in 2017 now comes across as a taut dramatic arc, the text sometimes stylized — characters tend to stammer repetitions of key lines — but the storytelling clear, lean and always supported by the agile music.Rae performing Ophelia’s mad scene.Sara Krulwich/The New York TimesA crucial factor in that clarity is Neil Armfield’s savage, exhilarating production, which originated at Glyndebourne but has effortlessly scaled up for the Met; bigger, in this case, really is better. The singers’ faces are caked in floury white, like Kabuki actors rushed into service before being fully prepared. Alice Babidge’s aristocratic costumes float ambiguously between our time and the 1960s, and Ralph Myers’s set — lit by Jon Clark with flooding daylight and mournful sunset — is a manor-house ballroom that fragments and rotates to become a theater’s backstage. These characters, we are not allowed to forget, are performers, too — but that bit of detachment only redoubles the poignancy of their struggles.Making his Met debut in the title role, the tenor Allan Clayton is the same disheveled, melancholy presence he was in England. Barely leaving the stage during the performance, he is covered in sweat by the end. But the strains the score forces toward the edges of his range feel more intentional now, even beautiful; his tone is sometimes plangently lyrical, sometimes sarcastically sharp. Without losing the character’s desperation, Clayton now makes Hamlet more persuasively antic and wry — more real.Relyea, right, as the ghost of Hamlet’s father, appearing to Clayton.Sara Krulwich/The New York TimesDepicting the ghost of Hamlet’s father — a ferocious, ecstatic invention, sung by the stony-toned bass-baritone John Relyea — Dean is not above creepy, effective horror-movie effects. The baritone Rod Gilfry and the mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly conjure the luxuriant sternness of Claudius (Hamlet’s uncle and his father’s killer) and Gertrude (his mother and, fatally, Claudius’s new wife).Dean and Jocelyn give us an Ophelia more forthright and forceful than fragile flower, but that unseen choral haze from the pit hovers around the poised, subtle soprano Brenda Rae from the beginning, a premonition of insanity. When she testifies in front of Claudius and Gertrude about Hamlet’s odd behavior, we don’t just hear the bronzed resonance of a temple bowl; we somehow feel ourselves inside its claustrophobic metallic emptiness, too.Ophelia’s mad scene, with Rae in mud-soiled underwear, matted hair and a men’s tailcoat, pounding on her chest as she sings to make the notes tremble, is eerie without overstatement. As her avenging brother, Laertes, the tenor David Butt Philip is ardent; as her officious father, Polonius, the tenor William Burden avoids caricature. The whole vast company is strong, including the onstage chorus, an implacably unified mob of nobility at fever pitch.Though cutely portrayed as toadyish countertenor twins by Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen and Christopher Lowrey, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern struggle to serve much musical or dramatic purpose. (They were trimmed for Ambroise Thomas’s French “Hamlet” of 1868, the only other operatic version still in wide circulation.) But so sure is Dean’s imagination and execution that you accept as part of his theatrical world even the elements that you might not have chosen for yours.And so many of his ideas are inspired, like adding the forlorn country lilt of an accordionist (Veli Kujala) to the scene in which Hamlet corrals a traveling troupe of actors to put on an evocation of his father’s murder. Later, the whistling of the gravedigger (Relyea, who also sings the chief of the players’ troupe) passes with miraculous restraint into the orchestra, until the solemnity of the ensemble is cut through with sardonic grunts of brass and more windy wheezes of accordion.This is a long score — two hours and 45 minutes of music — and its pace conspicuously slows during a blood bath finale that unfolds with painstaking, even painful, deliberation. But to live within such a confident vision as Dean and Jocelyn’s, and to feel it live around and in you, is the pleasure afforded by great art. Who would want that to end any sooner?HamletThrough June 9 at the Metropolitan Opera, Manhattan; metopera.org. More

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    ‘To Be or Not to Be’: Is It the Question or the Point?

    At the Metropolitan Opera, Brett Dean and Matthew Jocelyn’s adaptation of “Hamlet” nods to different, surprising versions of Shakespeare’s text.“Hamlet” is our culture’s supreme emblem of a great artist’s freedom to create something radically new. Shakespeare found a way to represent the inner life as it had never been represented before: the pressure of compulsive, involuntary memories; the haunting presence of a dead father; a son’s angst in the wake of his mother’s remarriage; the suicidal thoughts of a young person forced to make impossible choices in a corrupt world. It is here, if anywhere, that Jorge Luis Borges could claim with a straight face that Shakespeare was God.In fact, the creation of “Hamlet,” which was first written and performed in late 1599 or 1600, took place within severe, all-too-human constraints. A part owner of his theater company, Shakespeare was almost certainly urged by his fellow shareholders to write a play about the Danish prince. They would have noted the success of at least one earlier stage version of an old revenge tale that was already well-known (and that continues to be recycled, as in the new film “The Northman”). In addition to writing for a commercial enterprise in a cutthroat mass-entertainment industry, he was working with an all-male cast of 12 that performed in the afternoons on a stage without scenery or lighting; he had to keep a wary eye on the government censors; and he had to please a large audience that ranged from the educated elite to the illiterate.Given these constraints, his achievement is all the more stunning. To see the originality of “Hamlet,” simply consider the astonishing number of words in the script that are used for the first time in print (and, in some instances, never again): fanged, fret, pander, compulsive, unnerved, unpolluted, besmirch, self-slaughter, blastment, chop-fallen, down-gyved, implorator, mobled, pajock, and many, many more. It is as if Shakespeare were driven to invent a whole new idiom to express what he had discovered in a familiar story.And it was not only a matter of unusual words. The play, written in characteristically supple iambic pentameter, has an unforgettable music of its own, a set of rhythmic surprises sprung in the opening spondee — “Who’s there?” — and developed in a thousand different ways. It is a music epitomized, even for those who have no idea that “Hamlet” is composed in verse, by the cadence of the most famous line in its most famous soliloquy: “To be, or not to be: that is the question.”Clayton, right, as Hamlet during a recent rehearsal at the Met.Sara Krulwich/The New York TimesNow imagine the challenge of trying to write an opera based on this of all plays — as Brett Dean has done with his “Hamlet,” which had its premiere at the Glyndebourne Festival in 2017 and arrives at the Metropolitan Opera on May 13.“Hamlet” is a musical challenge before which even Giuseppe Verdi hesitated. In 1887, in what is for me the greatest of all transformations of Shakespeare into opera, Verdi miraculously captured the music of “Othello.” With the help of the librettist Arrigo Boito, who radically cut the tragedy, the composer found a way to give the three protagonists sublime melodic expressions of their ardent, anxious desire, steadfast love and fathomless hatred.To make this transformation work successfully, of course, many things in Shakespeare’s text had to be jettisoned, and the motivations of the characters had above all to be clarified. In the play, for example, Iago’s rationale for destroying Othello is famously unclear; in the opera, “Otello,” Verdi gives Iago a stupendous, full-throated credo: “I believe in a cruel God who has created me in His image.”Small wonder that Verdi — who also adapted “Macbeth” and fashioned “Falstaff” out of “The Merry Wives of Windsor” and “Henry IV” — contemplated taking on “Hamlet” but ultimately changed his mind. What would he have done with a plot whose every action is plagued by uncertainty, and with characters whose every motivation is ambivalent?A handful of composers, most notably Ambroise Thomas in the mid-19th century, ventured into this territory, but none of them managed to penetrate very far into its forbidding depths. That is, until Dean wrote his adaptation, which captures something of the authentic “Hamlet” music — in all its strangeness, dissonance and haunting beauty.But the word “authentic,” in relation to “Hamlet,” is misleading. The opera’s gifted librettist, Matthew Jocelyn, grasped what Shakespeare scholars have come to understand, that there is no single definitive text of the play. It survives in three early printings that have at least some claim to authority: the brief version (Q1), published in 1603 in the small-format size known as a quarto; the much longer quarto version (Q2), published the following year; and the version included in the celebrated First Folio (F) of 1623.Each text differs from the others in crucial ways, and almost all modern editions of the play adopt elements from more than one of them. (Even editors who dismiss Q1 as hopelessly defective usually follow it in having the ghost appear in the famous closet scene not in armor, but in his nightgown.) Moreover, the texts of Q2 and F are each too long to fit comfortably into what Shakespeare called “the two hours’ traffic of our stage.” From the beginning, the playwright seems to have expected any given production to pick and choose, shaping “Hamlet” for its particular time and occasion. All versions are the result of choices, cuts, alterations.All of this clearly lies behind Jocelyn’s evident sense of freedom in refashioning the text, which in any case would have had to be reduced in length to serve as the libretto. Only about 20 percent of the lines in the full-length play make it into the opera, leaving room for the music, as Dean has said, to be the protagonist.What is striking, given the drastic cuts, is how much of what has obsessed the readers and audiences of “Hamlet” over the past several hundred years powerfully resonates in this operatic reimagining. Hamlet’s voice reaches the edge of desperation then swoops into bitter comedy before veering toward tenderness and back to manic grief. The murderer Claudius has a gift for smoothness and authority that lightly conceals something like false notes. The countertenors, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, thinly flatter and echo both each other and their interlocutors. Ophelia’s descent into madness releases in her an erotic aggression that astonishes and alarms Gertrude. Chords in the orchestra and chorus are extended, drawn out and dispersed, as if they were searching for a resolution that eludes them.John Tomlinson, above, as the Ghost of Old Hamlet, and Clayton in the Glyndebourne production.Glyndebourne Productions Ltd.; Richard Hubert SmithJocelyn also cunningly reweaves the text, an intervention apparent from the opera’s first moments. An offstage chorus sings a funeral chant for the old king made up of words and phrases — “noble dust,” “quintessence of dust,” and the like — that come from very different places in the play. Hamlet enters alone and, half-singing, half-speaking, intones the words “or not to be … or not to be … or not to be.” The fragment from the celebrated Act III soliloquy is followed in this opening aria by fragments taken from his other soliloquies, along with a line — “What ceremony else?” — lifted from a different character, Laertes, who speaks it in Act V, at Ophelia’s grave.From the start, then, it is made clear that we are not to expect that the opera will work its way dutifully through the text or develop individual characters in the way that Shakespeare’s play does, most famously through soliloquies. Rather, we have entered what we might call “The Hamlet Zone.” Here, words do not stay in their place or belong only to the character who speaks them. In his death throes, Polonius sings the lines about the play-within-the-play that both he and the chorus have earlier sung.When Hamlet asks the visiting players to give him a passionate speech from their very best play, they begin to sing “To be or not to be.” And in Ophelia’s madness, she sings not her words alone but words that Hamlet has spoken to her, words that weigh like rocks dragging her down to a muddy death. “The Hamlet Zone” is a place in which words are broken up, transferred and shared, and in which the voice of one character is woven together, in both harmony and dissonance, with that of another.Such, after all, is the special power of opera.Dean does eventually give us one of Hamlet’s soliloquies more or less in its entirety, and it is the soliloquy we have been waiting for since the opening fragment “or not to be.” But there is a surprise in store. Not only does Hamlet drop the opening “To be” — as if he were already too far along toward not being — but the speech also takes an unexpected turn:… or not to be… or not to be… or not to beTo be … ay, there’s the point.Is this faithful to Shakespeare? Yes, in a way. Jocelyn has chosen the version of the soliloquy that appears in Q1. Scholars typically cite this to demonstrate why they call this text of the play the “Bad Quarto.” My students at Harvard usually laugh when I show it onscreen. But it is not the least bit funny here. As Hamlet sings it, the monosyllabic “point” works perfectly, in a way that “question” would not. A play and an opera, however deeply bound up with each other, are not the same. Ay, there’s the point.Stephen Greenblatt is the author, among other books, of “Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare” and “Hamlet in Purgatory.” He is the Cogan University Professor of the Humanities at Harvard and the general editor “The Norton Shakespeare.” More