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2003.05.02 The Guardian: Outrageous fortune

Outrageous Fortune

The Guardian Friday May 2 2003

Gertrude gets to a nunnery and Hamlet is crowned king.

Tim Ashley on a remarkable reworking of Shakespeare


Hamlet, by the French composer Ambroise Thomas, was ushered on to the stage in Paris in March 1868. The opera proved contentious from the start, and the critics and the public were soon at loggerheads. It was hugely popular in its day, and remained in the repertory in Europe, Britain and the US until around the time of the first world war.

Most critics were opposed to the work, its precarious relationship to Shakespeare a source of endless comment. Thomas, they railed, had profaned a sacred text. Shakespeare had been reduced to “complacent rhymes” and Hamlet (who ‘at one point consumes a “dram of eale”, kicking off a drinking song) was forced to make “Bacchic glugging noises”.

The controversy continued, even when the opera was in limbo. Though the work has undergone a resurrection since the 1970s, and later this month returns to Covent Garden after decades of absence, the jury is still out on whether it traduces Shakespeare, and whether it is any good.

Divorcing the opera from the play and letting it stand by itself is one way to approach it, a view shared in part by British baritone Simon Keenlyside, who plays Hamlet in the Royal Opera’s new production. “It’s not Hamlet as such,” he says. “The play is a worry, because I want to forget Hamlet and do it as it is, as a high Victorian melodrama, with as much honesty as possible.”

Thomas’s version was written for a bourgeois Second Empire audience, at a time when France was sliding towards war with Prussia and the legitimacy of Napoleon III’s rule was being questioned. One early critic quietly compared Thomas’s upstart, bullying Claudius to the Emperor himself.

The play was accordingly straitjacketed into the values of the time with a consequent narrowing of its emotional range. “One thing that strikes me as difficult,” Keenlyside says, “is that it occupies so much of the emotional middle ground. A lot of the eddies in the play are taken out, like Polonius’s death.” Some changes are drastic. There’s no Fortinbras, no Rosencrantz, no Guildenstern. Polonius becomes a shadowy figure, though he is openly identified as Claudius’s co-conspirator in the murder of Hamlet’s father. The speech to the Actors is replaced by Hamlet’s aforementioned drinking song.

Though chunks of the libretto derive from Shakespeare, some passages are wrenched from their contexts; the language, purged of its scatological plunges, is decorous. There are no “enseamed beds” or “country matters”. Thomas’s Ophelia is modelled not on Shakespeare but on the titular heroines of Donizetti’s opera Lucia di Lammermoor and Adolphe Adam’s ballet Giselle.

HamletBarcelona6When the opera opens, she and Hamlet are engaged, a fact acknowledged by the court and Laertes, who entrusts his sister to Hamlet while he is abroad. Hamlet, suspicious of Ophelia’s father, breaks off their engagement. In her resultant madness, Ophelia, far from spouting Shakespearean obscenities, goes to her death alternately haunted by visions of herself as both Hamlet’s wife and as an undead spirit who returns to prey on treacherous lovers.

The greatest bone of contention, however, is the ending. Hamlet’s brawl with Laertes in Ophelia’s grave is interrupted by the final appearance of the Ghost, visible to all, who first, rather alarmingly, dispatches Gertrude to a nunnery, then demands that Hamlet carry out his revenge by killing Claudius. This done, Hamlet, very much alive, is crowned King of Denmark. This caused an understandable uproar. When the opera was given its UK premiere, Thomas supplied a revised, albeit musically weaker ending in which Hamlet, stricken by conscience over his treatment of Ophelia, commits suicide.

In recent years, conductors have come up with their own endings in an attempt to follow the text more closely. This time round at Covent Garden, however, the original version is being used, though Keenlyside has suggested to his directors that he should be wounded in the final scene, “so we have an idea he’s not going to make it for very long”.

All this, as Keenlyside says, “ain’t Hamlet” – nor does Thomas’s approach chime with more familiar, Romantic interpretations of the play. The early 19th-century European rediscovery of Shakespeare took on overtones of Byronism to produce a view of Hamlet, still prevalent, as the ultimate doomed, moody isolationist. Composers approached him with reverential caution, rarely plundering the text direct.

Berlioz wrote a thunderous Funeral March for the final scene and a hauntingly beautiful choral setting of Gertrude’s description of Ophelia’s death. Liszt and Tchaikovsky wrote symphonic poems that probed the obsessive morbidity of Hamlet’s psyche. Liszt focused on his prevarication in music that refuses to resolve itself harmonically or thematically; Tchaikovsky is more manic, emphasising the blurred line between Hamlet’s genuine melancholy and his madness “in craft”. All three composers, self-torturing, high-minded isolationists in their own ways, strove for heightened exaltation. Thomas, however, was a practical man of the theatre and something of an opportunist. His seriousness of purpose has often been called into question.

He was cavalier about his sources from the start. He made his name in 1850 with a version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which features Shakespeare getting sloshed with Falstaff in a Richmond pub, overseen by Elizabeth I disguised as a commoner. Thomas’s greatest success was Mignon, which crushes Goethe’s vast novel Wilhelm Meister into a three-hour span and turns its deranged heroine into an androgynous femme fatale, “neither boy, girl nor woman” says the libretto. The whiffs of kinkiness were integral to the work’s popularity.

Hamlet was written in an attempt to conquer the bureaucratic Paris Opera, where Verdi, Wagner and Berlioz had all conspicuously failed. It was effectively composed on the theatre’s terms rather than his own, and it duly succeeded, though Thomas wrote nothing of note again. He was, one suspects, an unpleasant man. After the Franco- Prussian war, he turned to teaching, became a rabid nationalist, harped on about the need for “purity” in French music, and tried to obstruct the careers of composers he considered tainted by Wagnerism.

But what of the score? An opera ultimately stands or falls by the integrity of its musico-dramatic integration, rather than by the quality of its libretto or its faithfulness to its sources. “It’s great music,” Keenlyside , says. Some of it is – though the opera also: contains stylistic tensions that derive from the circumstances of its creation. Writing for the Paris Opera also meant writing for dictatorial stars. Thomas had to produce a vehicle for the rather grand Swedish coloratura soprano Christine Nilsson. She provided him with some Scandinavian folk songs, to which she insisted Ophelia should go insane. Thomas dutifully came up with a showstopper to end all showstoppers. It can be staggering in performance, if the soprano has enough voice.

His real interest perhaps lay elsewhere: the finest sections of the score concern the Ghost, Gertrude and Hamlet. The repetitive rhythms to which the Ghost stalks Elsinore generate enormous power. The showdown between Hamlet and Geltrude is a dialogue of tremendous force, while extended chromatic suspensions convey both Hamlet’s innate mental disturbance and the “antic disposition” he deliberately adopts. “This difficult game that Hamlet is playing, this struggle with himself, is pretty similar to the play,” Keenlyside observes, “only there isn’t quite so much of it.”

The work proved successful both at Opera North a few years ago and in Geneva, where Keenlyside first sang the role and from where the Covent Garden production derives. Whether the Royal Opera can silence the controversies that surround the piece remains to be seen. It’s time, perhaps, for a new generation of audiences to decide if Thomas’s Hamlet is a travesty, a masterpiece or something in between.

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