By Lynne Gray, PhD
Note: This opera will be streamed over www.metopera.org.
Tuesday, May 5
Thomas’s Hamlet ~ 2 HRS 49 MIN
Starring Marlis Petersen, Jennifer Larmore, Simon Keenlyside, and James Morris, conducted by Louis Langrée. From March 27, 2010.
Here is yet another wonderful opera that, for whatever reasons, had been absent from the Met’s repertoire for over a century. Presumably, it won’t be so long until the next time, but you never know. Considering its scarcity, Ambroise Thomas’s Hamlet can be a great evening of operatic theatre, and Simon Keenlyside’s gripping performance as the tortured Prince of Denmark had critics raving. Keenlyside’s superb singing, coupled with his equally committed acting remains one of the best examples of operatic drama in our time. The cast also includes Marlis Petersen as Ophélie (who amazingly took over at the last minute from an ailing Natalie Dessay), and who brilliantly shows why this opera’s mad scene is so justly famous.
Hamlet is a French grand opera in five acts by the composer Thomas (1811-1896), from a libretto by Michel Carré and Jules Barbier. It premiered in 1868 and was predominantly based on a French adaptation of Shakespeare’s play written in 1847 by Alexandre Dumas, père, and Paul Meurice. Working within the (relatively strict) operatic conventions of French grand opera in the 1860s, the librettists (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 a familiar tale clearly and directly (if in a substantially truncated form). It may be worth remembering that Shakespeare was still considered rather barbarous in 19th-century France. His works seemed to them to be crude and disheveled compared with the orderly disciplines of classic French drama. It was said: “Racine wrote for the (elite) French court; Shakespeare wrote for the (common) box office.”
So, the first thing to understand about the opera is that these strong cultural rivalries – differences in artistic tastes and artistic standards – were rampant at the time. The French had strong prejudices against both English and Italian opera (which were all mutual, of course!). Therefore, you will find multiple departures from Shakespeare’s original in this version. Dumas explained his “improvements” on Shakespeare’s play by insisting that the original “violated plausibility, transgressed decency, and destroyed the dramatic balance. Since Hamlet is not guilty to the same degree as the others, he should not die the same death as the others.” Four dead bodies on the stage would constitute a “most unpleasant effect,” and since the ghost appears at the beginning of the play, “it must necessarily reappear to be present at the end.”
Thus – Shakespeare’s play includes something like 30 characters and multiple complex subplots – Thomas’ opera has fewer than 15 characters (only 4 main ones) and it concentrates almost entirely on Hamlet’s predicament and its effects on Ophélie. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are gone, removing most of the black humor of the play, as well as the trip to England. Fortinbras was cut, so no invasion from Norway. Polonius’ accidental murder in act 4 was eliminated, and his singing part reduced to only eight measures — you get the idea!
Other plot changes, such as making Läerte less cynical and more positive towards Hamlet early on, not only simplify the story but heighten the emotion of their duel which takes place in the Gravediggers Scene. Gertrude has been made a co-conspirator alongside Claudius to enhance the emotion of the conflict between Hamlet and Gertrude. Polonius is also a co-conspirator to strengthen Hamlet’s motivation for rejecting Ophélie as his wife.
Shakespeare’s Ophelia is quite distinct from the opera’s Ophélie. The new one is a creature drawn much more from the 19th-century than the 16th. Her madness does not come from the actions of a man who creates an intolerable situation for her, but rather from his withdrawal, which leaves an emptiness she cannot fill. Musically, of course, a Mad Scene is basically an audience-pleasing creation which draws on long-established operatic tradition (mostly for female characters dressed in white!).
Another noticeable change will be the addition of Hamlet’s drinking song. This was also created as an opportunity for an audience-pleasing musical number – cutting short his famous instructions to the players for a more operatically entertaining song.
In the final scenes, there are yet other plot simplifications – Laërte, Polonius, and Gertrude all survive! The ghost returns and merely banishes Gertrude to a convent for her role in the conspiracy – and even Hamlet himself lives – and is proclaimed King. (Not what you were expecting, right!)
A few last things to know concerning this specific production – Petersen, as Ophélie brought the house down in what is one of opera’s ultimate mad-and-death-scenes, delivering stratospheric coloratura vocal acrobatics while staggering all over the stage. The evening, nevertheless, was really Keenlyside’s triumph – in a riveting performance, he used every nuance of his fluid, dark voice and every shading of his somber, expressive face and body to bring the enigmatic, brooding Hamlet’s many conflicting moods to life. Gertrude, however, perhaps crazed by guilt and terror, behaved more like Lady Macbeth than Denmark’s Queen (but two mad scenes in one opera would be a bit much), and despite many fewer deaths, an inordinate amount of red liquid is spilled all over the stage: Hamlet jumps on a table, pours jugs of red wine all over himself, and rolls to the floor, while Ophelia gets covered in blood as she kills herself by stabbing her breast and then slitting her arms. Check it out…. this is not one that comes around very frequently.
1. Simon Keenlyside as Hamlet in Ambroise Thomas’s Hamlet at the Metropolitan Opera House – Photo Credit Brent Ness.
2. Simon Keenlyside, left, in the title role of ‘Hamlet,’ with David Pittsinger as the ghost in Thomas’s “Hamlet” at the Met. Credit… Met Opera.
3. Marlis Petersen as Ophélie and Simon Keenlyside as Hamlet in Ambroise Thomas’s Hamlet at the Metropolitan Opera House – Photo Credit Brent Ness.
4. Simon Keenlyside during the drinking song in Ambroise Thomas’s Hamlet at the Metropolitan Opera House, March 12, 2010 (Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera).
5. Marlis Petersen as Ophélie in “Hamlet.” Photo: Brent Ness/Metropolitan Opera