The catalog of grievances against the opera usually begins with Ophelia, whose presence has become as prominent as Hamlet’s. Her mad scene occupies most of Act IV, but the abusive treatment that drives her to insanity is only hinted at. Following a tender love duet in Act I, Hamlet virtually ignores her, and, after a pleasant entrance aria, her brother Laertes dwindles away to a practically invisible presence. Polonius is reduced to a brief walk-on, and even Claudius and Gertrude seem rather shadowy figures. Fortinbras, Osric, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have been banished entirely, and at the end Hamlet survives to be crowned king of Denmark. For the British premiere at Covent Garden in 1869, Thomas obligingly supplied an alternate ending in which Hamlet commits suicide, but that only seemed to make matters worse. (Without rewriting any music, Mr. Caurier and Mr. Leiser have devised yet a third finale in which Hamlet dies but are still working out the details for their Met version.)
All that may seem unpromising to Shakespeare scholars, but the operatic “Hamlet” generates its own theatrical frissons when placed in the right hands and treated sympathetically. Nothing could be easier than to beat the opera with a stick for what it doesn’t do or for how far it strays from the source, but that would miss the point. The play has been far more egregiously mistreated and bowdlerized over the past 400 years in straight theatrical productions, as a glance at its colorful performance history proves. One suspects that Met audiences will get a more faithful impression of “Hamlet” than did miners in the Wild West of the 1850s, when Edwin Booth’s hugely popular Shakespeare adaptations played the local opry houses.
Working within the operatic conventions of French grand opera in the 1860s, the librettists Michel Carré and Jules Barbier (who were also responsible for Gounod’s “Faust” and “Roméo et Juliette” as well as Thomas’s earlier hit, “Mignon”) fashioned a text that tells the tale clearly and directly, setting up effective situations that offer the composer every opportunity to give the opera a strong structural, musical and theatrical profile. It’s also worth remembering that Shakespeare was still considered rather barbarous in 19th-century France, a playwright whose works seemed positively crude and disheveled compared with the orderly disciplines of classic French drama. Racine wrote for the French court; Shakespeare wrote for the box office. Thomas’s civilizing treatment of the material reflects this Gallic attitude as opposed to the more rough-hewn approach that Verdi took when he adapted “Macbeth” into an opera.
Ophelia’s mad scene is a perfect example, and there are legitimate musical reasons why this elaborate showpiece has remained a favorite. Its contrasting sections follow upon one another like a chain of exquisitely chiseled jewels, craftily devised to exploit the full range of a lyric-coloratura’s vocal technique and set against an accompaniment of unusual instrumental delicacy. Thomas reserves his most magical stroke for the end of the scene, as a hushed offstage chorus of water nymphs lure Ophelia to the brook and she floats away singing poignant snatches from her Act I love duet with Hamlet, perhaps the most haunting melody in the opera.
Hamlet himself is given plenty of vocal opportunities, and his most famous Shakespearean moments are at least suggested: the “To be or not to be” monologue is rendered virtually intact, and Thomas’s pensive setting of the text faithfully mirrors the character’s vacillating moods. Connoisseurs may sneer at Hamlet’s rollicking drinking song with the traveling players, but the piece is devilishly effective in context, and even more so when Hamlet manically reprises bits of it during the ensemble that ends the act.
Thomas is at his best when rising to the challenge of the great scene between Hamlet and his mother, generating an operatic confrontation of chilling declamatory power. These roles were created by the baritone Jean-Baptiste Faure and the mezzo Pauline Guéymard-Lauters, Verdi’s first Posa and Eboli in the Paris Opéra premiere of “Don Carlos” the year before “Hamlet.” Thomas must surely have attended Verdi’s masterpiece, studied the score closely and learned much from it.
Louis Langrée, who conducts the Met production, has no patience with critics who trash Thomas, and he disputes the sarcastic aphorism coined by the composer’s sharp-tongued contemporary, Emmanuel Chabrier: “There is good music, there is bad music, and then there is Ambroise Thomas.”
“I think they resented Thomas,” Mr. Langrée said, “in part because he was such an establishment figure: a distinguished academician, a Prix de Rome winner, elected to the Académie des Beaux-Arts, and for many years a respected composition professor at the Conservatoire.
“But he is also a composer who belongs to the central tradition of French lyric drama, standing in a direct line from Lully, Rameau and Gluck through Berlioz and Debussy. In each of their operas one can hear how painstakingly they achieved the correct balance between declamation and song, a precise manner of articulating words within the musical phrase. Even Gounod, for all the melodic charm of ‘Faust,’ never aimed for quite such a subtle blend of word and music.”
Mr. Leiser’s favorite example of Thomas’s declamatory sensitivity arrives during the scene in which the ghost of Hamlet’s father appears on the castle battlements. “This is not at all intended as a spooky or melodramatic effect,” Mr. Leiser said. “It is merely a father who comes to speak to his son and says, ‘I’ve been killed, avenge me.’ It’s so simple and touching. And the nobility of Hamlet’s descending phrase ‘Ombre chère, ombre vengeresse’ as he watches the ghost disappear — you could weep at the sheer beauty of it. But then I find all of Thomas’s musical choices refined, sensitive and strong.”
Mr. Caurier added: “In France we have a famous stage actor named Charles Berling, whom I once took to the opera specifically to watch Keenlyside act the part. He was so overwhelmed that he then and there decided to take on the role himself — which he did, in a French production of the play that Moshe and I directed and has by now toured all over France. How deliciously ironic: Thomas’s ‘despised’ opera actually inspiring a production of the play.”Continue reading the main story
February 11th, 2018
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