HAMLET – Ambroise Thomas


In English-speaking coun­tries it is gen­er­ally as dan­ger­ous to tam­per with Shake­speare, as it is to fid­dle with Goethe in Ger­many. But no one seems to have informed the French of this, and the last half of the 19th Cen­tury saw French com­posers turn­ing the sacred can­non of Shake­speare and Goethe into operas right and left. Faust, Wil­helm Meister’s Appren­tice­ship, The Sor­rows of Young Werther, Much Ado About Noth­ing, Romeo and Juliet and, most egre­giously (from the point of view of Eng­lish speak­ers) Ham­let, all became pop­u­lar French operas.

To this day Ger­man opera houses are likely to bill Gounod’s Faust as Mar­guerite, in def­er­ence to Goethe’s orig­i­nal. If Ambroise Thomas had enti­tled his 1868 opera Ophélie, rather than Ham­let, per­haps it might not have been so exco­ri­ated by the crit­ics — so much so that the Met did not give Thomas’ per­fectly mar­velous opera at all dur­ing the 20th Cen­tury. This pro­duc­tion open­ing on March 16th will be the first per­for­mances of Ham­let at the Met since 1897.

Nelie Melba as Ophelia

The com­pany gave the opera (in Ital­ian) dur­ing its open­ing sea­son, later switch­ing to the orig­i­nal French.  But despite starry casts (includ­ing Sem­brich, Calvé and Melba as Ophe­lia; Kach­mann and Las­salle in the title role, and Edouard de Reszke and Pol Plançon as Claudius) after nine per­for­mances it dis­ap­peared. Ophelia’s Mad Scene was some­times heard, shorn from the rest of the opera — most mem­o­rably, per­haps, when the com­pany was on tour in Chicago in 1894 and Nel­lie Melba sang it after a com­plete per­for­mance of Rigo­letto, leav­ing one to won­der at the reac­tions of her bari­tone and tenor co-stars.

The opin­ion of Ham­let expressed by W. J. Hen­der­son, dean of New York’s music crit­ics dur­ing the company’s first 50 years, was typ­i­cal. “No one can really take it very seri­ously,” he sniffed. On another occa­sion he wrote, “No artist, how­ever tal­ented, can present a clear and sym­met­ri­cal imper­son­ation of either Ham­let or Ophe­lia as set forth in the opera.” And he once referred to the role of Ham­let as “the melan­choly Dane, who in opera, how­ever, is not too melan­choly to sing a good drink­ing song.”

But turn­ing up one’s nose at Ham­let the opera, merely because it is not Ham­let the play, makes as much sense as sneer­ing at a per­fectly pre­pared lob­ster souf­flé and bot­tle of cham­pagne just because they are not roast beef and a pint of ale. Surely any ratio­nal adult can take delight in both, appre­ci­at­ing them for what they are. And Ham­let the opera offers a ver­i­ta­ble ban­quet of delights if one will only approach it for what it is — a won­der­ful exam­ple of French grand opera, filled with enchant­ing melodies, dra­matic scenes loaded with con­trasts, all height­ened by inno­v­a­tive orches­tra­tion and pro­pelled by inter­est­ing char­ac­ters that have been cham­pi­oned by some of the best singing actors of all time.

When Thomas’s libret­tists, Michel Carré and Jules Bar­bier, set to work on Ham­let, the main French trans­la­tion of the play was still the one made in 1769 by Jean-François Ducis (and which, appar­ently, was still in use by the Comédiè-Française in the 1880s). Like all other French “trans­la­tions” of the time, it was more a ver­sion of the play, smooth­ing out Shakespeare’s “vul­gar” lan­guage, drop­ping scenes that were con­sid­ered vio­lent or oth­er­wise dis­taste­ful. In short, “refin­ing” Shake­speare for the more “ele­vated” taste of the French. It was Vic­tor Hugo’s son, Françoise-Victor, who made the first true trans­la­tions of Shake­speare into French, his multi-volume work begin­ning pub­li­ca­tion in 1859.

Act II, scene ii of the opera

French opera did not aim to bring all of Shakespeare’s com­plex­ity and Eliz­a­bethan sense of drama to its pub­lic. It had its own cul­tural norms and expec­ta­tions, within which the libret­tists and com­poser were expected to work. For Carré and Bar­bier to not only show Ophelia’s death on stage, but to devote most of Act IV to it, raised eye­brows at the time. (They began the act with the oblig­a­tory bal­let, cut in this pro­duc­tion.) The scene with the gravedig­gers that opens Act V was con­sid­ered quite shock­ing by Parisian audi­ences in 1868, which also expected their Ham­let to live at the end of the opera, as he did when French actors played him on stage. Thomas knew the happy end­ing for his opera would cause prob­lems in Anglo-Saxon lands, and he wrote what is known as the Covent Gar­den end­ing (“Dénoue­ment du the­ater de Covent-Garden”) in which Ham­let dies. In the new Met pro­duc­tion, a ver­sion is used that incor­po­rates sec­tions of both the orig­i­nal and the Covent Gar­den ver­sions, with a tragic ending.

Ambroise Thomas

Today Thomas is one of the least known of the major 19th Cen­tury French com­posers, but he was not only extra­or­di­nar­ily suc­cess­ful in his day, he was quite influ­en­tial. (Jules Massenet was one of his pupils at the Con­ser­va­toire.) Charles Louis Ambroise Thomas was born into a musi­cal fam­ily in Metz on August 5th, 1811. His father taught vio­lin, singing and piano, his mother sang, and an older brother played cello in Parisian orches­tras. At the age of 17 Ambroise enrolled in the Con­ser­va­toire where he won first prize in both piano and coun­ter­point in 1829 and in 1830. Two years later he was award the Prix de Rome.

His first real oper­atic tri­umph was in 1849 with Le Caïd. Its show-stopping num­ber “The Drum Major” (Le Tam­bour Major) has been per­formed by every bass who can actu­ally get through its fusil­lade of vocal pyrotech­nics since Pol Plançon set the stan­dard in his 1906 record­ing. The aria is an early exam­ple of Thomas’ abil­ity to cre­ate a three-dimensional char­ac­ter through exploit­ing every aspect of a singer’s tech­ni­cal abil­ity, some­thing he would later use to dev­as­tat­ing effect in Ophelia’s Mad Scene.

In 1850 his opera Le Songe d’une nuit d’été was not a ver­sion of Mid­sum­mer Night’s Dream (despite its title), but an opera in which Shake­speare him­self was a char­ac­ter, along with Queen Eliz­a­beth I and Sir John Fal­staff. But by far Thomas’ most suc­cess­ful opera was Mignon (1866) given over 1,000 times by the Opéra-Comique dur­ing the composer’s life­time. It was fol­lowed by Ham­let two years later at the Opéra.

Jean-Baptiste Faure

The com­plex, chal­leng­ing role of Ham­let was orig­i­nally con­ceived for tenor, but when the great singing actor Jean-Baptiste Faure became avail­able, Thomas reworked the part for bari­tone. (The year before Faure had cre­ated the role of Rodrigue in Verdi’s Don Car­los.) The young Swedish soprano Chris­tine Nils­son was the first Ophe­lia, dri­ving all of Paris into a delir­ium with her star-making per­for­mance. Fif­teen years later she would open the brand new Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera House on Broad­way between 39th and 40th streets in another French opera, Faust. The pop­u­lar Pauline Gueymard-Lauters (the first Eboli in Don Car­los) cre­ated the role of Gertrude.

Just because Ham­let is a rav­ish­ingly beau­ti­ful opera, does not mean it is lack­ing in vivid drama. Hamlet’s encounter with the Ghost in Act I is a bril­liant use of orches­tra­tion to con­vey the super­nat­ural, and inter­rupt­ing it with the sounds of the fes­tiv­i­ties tak­ing place inside the cas­tle only height­ens the effect.  Thomas’ use of the sax­o­phone dur­ing the scene with the mimes is another exam­ple of his superb, and unusual, use of the orches­tra. Thomas reminds us of the gen­uine love Ham­let feels for Ophe­lia in the opera by deftly repeat­ing the haunt­ing melody in the Act I duet that accom­pa­nies Hamlet’s words, “Doubt the light, if you will, but never doubt my love.” It returns, not only in Act II, but also most poignantly, in her death scene. Hamlet’s much-maligned (albeit plau­si­ble in the con­text) Drink­ing Song, is par­tially reprised dur­ing the huge finale of Act II, high­light­ing his feigned mad­ness after accus­ing Claudius of mur­der. Act III, begin­ning with the oper­atic ver­sion of  “To be or not to be,” and end­ing with the bril­liant con­fronta­tion scene between Ham­let and his mother Gertrude, is one of the gems in all of French opera.

In fact, it would not be going too far to say every sin­gle aria, and scene, in the opera makes a con­sid­er­able effect when per­formed by singers with the cor­rect voice, tech­nique and under­stand­ing of French style. Per­haps this pro­duc­tion at the Met will finally allow audi­ences to see Ham­let for what it is, one of the great French operas, and a sen­sa­tional evening in the theater.

A very slightly dif­fer­ent ver­sion of these notes appeared in the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera Play­bill, March 2010.