Sat 9 Jul 2011
Ambroise Thomas - Hamlet
Opéra National du Rhin | Patrick Fournillier, Vincent Boussard, Stéphane Degout, Ana Camelia Stefanescu, Marie-Ange Todorovitch, Nicolas Cavallier, Christophe Berry, Vincent Pavesi, Mark Van Arsdale, Jean-Gabriel Saint-Martin, Dimitri Pkhaladze | Strasbourg, France - 26 June 2011
To be or not to be… an opera… that is the question.
That’s a bit of a predictable way to start a review of Ambroise Thomas’ opera version of Hamlet, but it’s still a relevant question that has divided opera-goers for years. Your view on that is likely to depend on whether you are an English-speaker and familiar with the Shakespeare drama or otherwise, and if you are more attuned to the traditions of French grand opera. The problem with Shakespeare in French – even though his work is venerated there almost as much as in the UK – is that it’s not really Shakespeare. In French it has none of the poetry of his Elizabethan period verse, and it translated into a rather prosaic, ordinary, commonplace (I know these all mean the same thing, I’m just listing them for effect) French that is almost indistinguishable from how modern French is spoken.
Adapting Shakespeare to opera is not without its problems either, but there are plenty of examples from Berlioz to Wagner, but most notably Rossini and Verdi, to indicate that there’s no reason why a lyrical presentation of the Bard’s dramas can’t work, and in some cases… dare I say it… even improve on the original. Well, maybe not improve, but there are certainly examples, such as Iago’s Credo in Verdi’s Otello, where the original elements are expanded upon to superb effect, but it’s hard to see how even the Gesamtkunstwerk nature of opera can add much that isn’t already contained within the original Shakespearean drama.
Particularly Hamlet, which in my view, and many others, is the greatest drama ever written. I may have been biased from the outset then, but, never having had the opportunity before to see Ambroise Thomas’s Hamlet – or indeed anything by one of France’s most respected if little-known composers – I was keen to take the opportunity to see it performed on French soil in Strasbourg. Ambroise Thomas’ works are rarely performed, with only Hamlet and Mignon staged with any kind of regularity in France, but even here at the Opéra National du Rhin, Hamlet was billed as a rare classic rediscovered. Try as I might however, I couldn’t get the original text out of my head as the rather drab, colourless, dull (yes, for effect) and prosaic French libretto singularly failed to bring the drama and the poetry to life.
Act I and II set out the dramatic content of the opera. It opens with the marriage of Gertrude to Claudius (a invented scene not in the original, but effective enough to establish the context of the drama) two months after his brother King Hamlet’s death, and is then followed by the appearance of the ghost of the father talking to his son Prince Hamlet, telling him that he was poisoned by Claudius and that he must be avenged (“but go easy on Gertrude”, he bizarrely warns), and Act II ends with the travelling players re-enacting the crime (strangely and confusingly in this production, implicating the real people into the drama and not leaving much room for ambiguity).
Musically, it’s hard to find anything attractive about the early scenes, the score conventional and dull, full of old-fashioned academicism that has little relation to the dramatic tone or context of the piece, with one-note continuo during speaking sections and only the chorus coming in from time to time to add dramatic emphasis. Any attempts at originality are quite eccentric, such as a solo saxophone at one point. The staging at Strasbourg Opéra didn’t really find any interesting way to make this come to life (the appearance of the King’s ghost walking vertically down a wall notwithstanding), with a generic Court setting that never changed, with variation only in the lighting – but it did at least keep the dramatic action fluid.
Act III and IV however, post interval, present a totally different side to the opera, putting aside the exposition of the dramatic plot and allowing the emotional tone to find its own footing through some lovely duets and arias – in Hamlet’s confrontation with the Queen, and particularly in Ophelia’s extended lament and death scene. It becomes more like scenes from Hamlet (or inspired by Hamlet) set to music, and it certainly kills the plot progression stone dead, but the musical qualities work in favour of the opera and this is certainly preferable to the dreary dramatisation of the first half. As wonderful as this might be, it comes at the cost of the excision of some important and famous scenes, with several of the characters given short shrift. Laertes has a walk-on/walk-off part (pointlessly wandering through the dramatic scene between Hamlet and Ophelia with a suitcase at one point in this production), there are no Rosencrantz or Guildenstern (not a loss really), and alas, poor Yorick’s name is forgotten by the gravediggers, giving Hamlet no opportunity to pose with a skull and meditate upon life (although he does so here, and quite effectively, in relation to Ophelia’s death). Even Polonius is reduced to a bit-part of about three lines, playing no significant part in the drama, and consequently coming out of the drama alive!
As do many other characters, for Thomas and his librettists Michel Carré and Jules Barbier (taken admittedly from a reworking of the drama by Alexandre Dumas) – suddenly realise that they need to find a way to quickly wrap-up this non-drama. Shakespeare is thrown out the window and instead they tack on their own ending where the ghost of the dead King appears before the assembled guests, hands a knife to Hamlet and tells him to get on with it (“but don’t forget, go easy on your mother”). Hamlet duly obliges, despatching Claudius before himself expiring over the grave of Ophelia. To say I was bemused at the finale would be an understatement – flabberghasted, perhaps – and this is the revised version of the opera that was forced upon Thomas for the English permiere of the opera, as it was felt that the English audience wouldn’t accept the happy ending in the original version where Hamlet lives on and is crowned King! Putting Shakespeare aside however – and the developments of Act III and IV are such a thoroughly enjoyable musical experience that one is finally able to do this – it was a however a dramatically effective conclusion.
It helped that the singing at Strasbourg was of a fairly high standard. Hamlet is a baritone role, which one feels it should be even though it’s not a great operatic role (he’s even upstaged by Ophelia), but we had Stéphane Degout here (who I’ve previously seen doing Rameau) and he was in fine voice, as was Nicolas Cavallier in the bass role of Claudius. Hamlet of course notes that women are fickle and inconstant, and there was some inconsistency to the Romanian Ana Camelia Stefanescu as Ophelia, and Marie-Ange Todorovitch’s Gertrude, but they were mainly hampered by the dramatic expression of the first two acts and both came through to excellent effect in the final two acts, particularly in Ophelia’s beautifully heartfelt lament. Despite the liberties taken with Shakespeare’s verse and characterisation then, and despite some conservative grand opera tedium in the drama of the first half, and with the help of some judicious pruning by Patrick Fournillier of the opera’s ballet sequences, Ambroise Thomas’ Hamlet proved to be such an experience that one can see why the opera remains popular in France, as well as why it’s not so highly thought of elsewhere.