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.
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.
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.
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.
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.