2010-03-10, cityarts, Hamlet with haunches

Hamlet with Haunches

By Joel Lobenthal 10.3.2010

Simon Keenlyside shares his life with a ballerina—and it shows

Movement and sound are both vital components in the world of British baritone Simon Keenlyside, and they will signify a singular theatrical experience when he stars at the Metropolitan Opera this month in a revival of Ambroise Thomas’ 1868 Hamlet.

To Keenlyside, movement in the biosphere means as much as on a darkened stage. He studied zoology at Cambridge University, then went to Manchester both to study voice at the Royal Northern College of Music, and to train in short-distance running at Sale Harriers, a champion-producing athletic club. In 2002, he starred in a kinetic staging of Schubert’s Winterreise song cycle, choreographed by Trisha Brown. Four years ago, he married Zenaida Yanowsky, a ballerina of London’s Royal Ballet.

His range encompasses the pratfalls of Mozart’s everyman Papageno in The Magic Flute, to the tortured introversion of alienated outsiders, like Berg’s Wozzeck or Hamlet himself. “I love physical comedy,” Keenlyside explained when I spoke with him recently. But experience has brought an understanding that less action can sometimes mean more. “Often the British in my lifetime have had sort of a reputation of being so-called ‘good actors’ on the opera stage,” he says. “Well, sometimes that’s true, but let’s not mistake mugging and dumbing for an audience that doesn’t speak the language for being good acting.”

Keenlyside speaks with reverence for his wife’s profession. “I’m strong as a horse, and I’ve always managed to do things physically, but I can’t do one thing that a dancer does.” He watches her performances from the wings or out front. “And I watch them dispassionately, too.” But with passionate admiration nevertheless. “The interesting artists are the ones that transcend the art form, as it were, and touch you, affect you. My wife happens to be one of those. She’s a great communicator.”

Sharing a roof with a ballerina is “like living with a race horse,” he says. “When she’s working, she’s got to be in London. She can’t even get out for one day ’cause they have one day off a week, and they have to rest their legs.”

Keenlyside and Yanowsky have a 16-month-old son, and he was awaiting the birth of their daughter the day that we spoke.

When Keenlyside made his Met debut in 1996, “I was too reticent as a person and I allowed that to touch me on the stage as well a bit.” But it was just around that time, he says, that full authority began to coalesce. After a six-year absence, he returned to the Met in 2007 for one of his best roles, the libidinous Count in The Marriage of Figaro. Keenlyside is appreciative of the fact that Peter Gelb “sat down with me—which is very rare for an intendant, a boss, to do—to discuss which roles might be appropriate, and might suit the house.”

Keenlyside has conducted his career with prudence and, at 50, remains in his prime, as was demonstrated at an impeccably sung lieder concert at Alice Tully Hall late last month. The intimacy of art song and the surge of grand opera demand starkly different vocal productions, however. “If I had to do Hamlet at the end of the week I wouldn’t have done the recital. You need to take as much metal out of your voice in the song repertoire.” Opera demands the capacity for full bore when required. Vocally, “I’ll need these two weeks to push the walls out.”

Once a staple of the French lyric repertory, Hamlet hasn’t been performed by the Met since 1897. But throughout the last decade, it’s been a hit in Europe for Keenlyside. The Met’s Hamlet reproduces the Covent Garden production directed by Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser. The role demands the full vocal as well as physical embodiment that he is keen to achieve. But “I want to think about it again,” he said. His Hamlet won’t be the same as what he did in London or in Barcelona. “The older you get, the more interested, hopefully the more in control you are of what is required, which physicality for which role.”

Next year he returns to New York for another recital at Alice Tully Hall, and to sing the Marquis de Posa—like Hamlet, a rich and ambivalent character—in Verdi’s Don Carlo. “I would like to be here every year,” he professed.

New York audiences, after not having seen enough of him in recent years, may well get the chance to make up for lost time.

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Chrys Atwood March 14, 2010 at 7:49 pm

As my Keenlysitings are now limited to HD broadcasts from the Met, I am gratified to hear Simon would like to bring us one every year. I am certainly looking forward to watching his new perspective on Hamlet!

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