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.