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2010-03-12,New York Times, In Defense of the Singing Hamlet

In Defense of the Singing Hamlet

By PETER G. DAVIS  Published: March 12, 2010


Simon Keenlyside who sings the title role in the Metropolitan Opera’s “Hamlet” (its first since 1897),
directed by Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser.


Mr. Keenlyside with James Morris, who plays Claudius
Jonathan Tichler/Metropolitan Opera

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AMBROISE THOMAS’S “Hamlet” returns to the Metropolitan Opera on Tuesday night, no doubt to be furiously denounced once again as a travesty of Shakespeare’s tragedy. Composed in 1868 as a five-act French grand opera with all the trimmings and not seen at the Met since 1897, “Hamlet” invariably seems to get bad press, especially in Anglo-Saxon countries. “Pretentious and wearisome,” summed up a critic for The New York Times after the Met premiere in 1884. “We’ve always known that something was rotten in the state of Denmark,” snarled the British critic Edward Seckerson after seeing a revival of the opera at Covent Garden in 2003, “and now we know what it is.” Perhaps the most devastating brushoff came from the French music historian E. Destranges, who, on the occasion of the composer’s centenary in 1911, sniffed that Thomas had done little more than “deposit” music on Shakespeare.

Despite all the scorn, Thomas’s “Hamlet” has survived. It chalked up a respectable 326 performances at the Paris Opéra between 1868 and 1914, and before that had been seen in virtually every major operatic center from St. Petersburg to Buenos Aires. The opera slid from view for a while, then turned up again in the 1970s, as audiences sought forgotten former hits, and star baritones realized that they were missing out on a juicy role. A partial list of recent operatic Hamlets includes Sherrill Milnes, Thomas Allen, Thomas Hampson and Bo Skovhus. The Met’s current melancholy Dane, Simon Keenlyside, has been performing in this well-traveled production by Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser since its 1996 debut in Geneva, with stopovers in London and Barcelona (where it was filmed for DVD release in 2003).

Ophélie is also a coveted role. Her elaborate mad scene has been a popular concert showcase for coloratura sopranos from Nellie Melba and Marcella Sembrich to Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland — and Natalie Dessay, a potent ingredient of the original Caurier-Leiser production. Because of illness, Ms. Dessay will be replaced at the Met by Marlis Petersen.

There have even been some passionate defenders of the opera, among them, not surprisingly, Mr. Caurier and Mr. Leiser. “Before agreeing to stage the piece,” Mr. Leiser confessed during a recent rehearsal break at the Met, “I dreaded listening to a recording. But the moment I heard the music I was immediately bowled over by its naked honesty, how well it serves the characters with such dramatic integrity. The music is never sentimental, and in that sense it is very close to Shakespeare.”

Mr. Caurier takes issue with those who argue that it’s merely Shakespeare with musical decorations. “It’s absurd to compare the two,” he said. “I’ve staged the play as well as the opera, and they are very different works. After all, you don’t go to ‘Don Giovanni’ expecting it to faithfully reflect Tirso de Molina, Molière or Pushkin. Besides, if you really wanted to hear all of Shakespeare’s words set to music the opera would last 16 hours.”

The catalog of grievances against the opera usually begins with Ophelia, whose presence has become as prominent as Hamlet’s. Her mad scene occupies most of Act IV, but the abusive treatment that drives her to insanity is only hinted at. Following a tender love duet in Act I, Hamlet virtually ignores her, and, after a pleasant entrance aria, her brother Laertes dwindles away to a practically invisible presence. Polonius is reduced to a brief walk-on, and even Claudius and Gertrude seem rather shadowy figures. Fortinbras, Osric, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have been banished entirely, and at the end Hamlet survives to be crowned king of Denmark. For the British premiere at Covent Garden in 1869, Thomas obligingly supplied an alternate ending in which Hamlet commits suicide, but that only seemed to make matters worse. (Without rewriting any music, Mr. Caurier and Mr. Leiser have devised yet a third finale in which Hamlet dies but are still working out the details for their Met version.)

All that may seem unpromising to Shakespeare scholars, but the operatic “Hamlet” generates its own theatrical frissons when placed in the right hands and treated sympathetically. Nothing could be easier than to beat the opera with a stick for what it doesn’t do or for how far it strays from the source, but that would miss the point. The play has been far more egregiously mistreated and bowdlerized over the past 400 years in straight theatrical productions, as a glance at its colorful performance history proves. One suspects that Met audiences will get a more faithful impression of “Hamlet” than did miners in the Wild West of the 1850s, when Edwin Booth’s hugely popular Shakespeare adaptations played the local opry houses.

Working within the operatic conventions of French grand opera in the 1860s, the librettists Michel Carré and Jules Barbier (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 the tale clearly and directly, setting up effective situations that offer the composer every opportunity to give the opera a strong structural, musical and theatrical profile. It’s also worth remembering that Shakespeare was still considered rather barbarous in 19th-century France, a playwright whose works seemed positively crude and disheveled compared with the orderly disciplines of classic French drama. Racine wrote for the French court; Shakespeare wrote for the box office. Thomas’s civilizing treatment of the material reflects this Gallic attitude as opposed to the more rough-hewn approach that Verdi took when he adapted “Macbeth” into an opera.

Ophelia’s mad scene is a perfect example, and there are legitimate musical reasons why this elaborate showpiece has remained a favorite. Its contrasting sections follow upon one another like a chain of exquisitely chiseled jewels, craftily devised to exploit the full range of a lyric-coloratura’s vocal technique and set against an accompaniment of unusual instrumental delicacy. Thomas reserves his most magical stroke for the end of the scene, as a hushed offstage chorus of water nymphs lure Ophelia to the brook and she floats away singing poignant snatches from her Act I love duet with Hamlet, perhaps the most haunting melody in the opera.

Hamlet himself is given plenty of vocal opportunities, and his most famous Shakespearean moments are at least suggested: the “To be or not to be” monologue is rendered virtually intact, and Thomas’s pensive setting of the text faithfully mirrors the character’s vacillating moods. Connoisseurs may sneer at Hamlet’s rollicking drinking song with the traveling players, but the piece is devilishly effective in context, and even more so when Hamlet manically reprises bits of it during the ensemble that ends the act.

Thomas is at his best when rising to the challenge of the great scene between Hamlet and his mother, generating an operatic confrontation of chilling declamatory power. These roles were created by the baritone Jean-Baptiste Faure and the mezzo Pauline Guéymard-Lauters, Verdi’s first Posa and Eboli in the Paris Opéra premiere of “Don Carlos” the year before “Hamlet.” Thomas must surely have attended Verdi’s masterpiece, studied the score closely and learned much from it.

Louis Langrée, who conducts the Met production, has no patience with critics who trash Thomas, and he disputes the sarcastic aphorism coined by the composer’s sharp-tongued contemporary, Emmanuel Chabrier: “There is good music, there is bad music, and then there is Ambroise Thomas.”

“I think they resented Thomas,” Mr. Langrée said, “in part because he was such an establishment figure: a distinguished academician, a Prix de Rome winner, elected to the Académie des Beaux-Arts, and for many years a respected composition professor at the Conservatoire.

“But he is also a composer who belongs to the central tradition of French lyric drama, standing in a direct line from Lully, Rameau and Gluck through Berlioz and Debussy. In each of their operas one can hear how painstakingly they achieved the correct balance between declamation and song, a precise manner of articulating words within the musical phrase. Even Gounod, for all the melodic charm of ‘Faust,’ never aimed for quite such a subtle blend of word and music.”

Mr. Leiser’s favorite example of Thomas’s declamatory sensitivity arrives during the scene in which the ghost of Hamlet’s father appears on the castle battlements. “This is not at all intended as a spooky or melodramatic effect,” Mr. Leiser said. “It is merely a father who comes to speak to his son and says, ‘I’ve been killed, avenge me.’ It’s so simple and touching. And the nobility of Hamlet’s descending phrase ‘Ombre chère, ombre vengeresse’ as he watches the ghost disappear — you could weep at the sheer beauty of it. But then I find all of Thomas’s musical choices refined, sensitive and strong.”

Mr. Caurier added: “In France we have a famous stage actor named Charles Berling, whom I once took to the opera specifically to watch Keenlyside act the part. He was so overwhelmed that he then and there decided to take on the role himself — which he did, in a French production of the play that Moshe and I directed and has by now toured all over France. How deliciously ironic: Thomas’s ‘despised’ opera actually inspiring a production of the play.”

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Terence Dawson March 13, 2010 at 2:11 pm

I saw this production at Covent Garden in 2003 and disliked it intensely. A Clunking set and for the most part clunking costumes, making the opening chorus almost risible. But I do agree with the above that the Thomas opera is not Shakespeare’s play and never could be. Thomas is no Verdi. Having said that given a good baritone and soprano it’s a great vehicle and they don’t come any better than Keenlyside. In this role at his incomparable best and matched by the sublime Dessay’s Ophelia. It’s a pity New York won’t see it. I only wish The Met was staging a different production… I’d go over.

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