Opera Scotland

Hamlet

Music
Ambroise Thomas (born Metz, 5 August 1811; died Paris, 12 February 1896)

Text
Michel Carré and Jules Barbier.

Source
Play Hamlet (1601) by William Shakespeare (British 1564-1616).

Premières
First performance: Paris (Opéra), 9 March 1868.
First UK performance: London (Covent Garden), 19 June 1869.
First performance in Scotland: To be confirmed.
Scottish Opera première: N/A.

Background
Thomas was a successful composer in his lifetime, though Hamlet is an unusual example of an attempt at the style required for a five-act grand opera. It is completely successful on those terms and remained popular in France well into the last century. It has often been criticised, particularly in Britain, for the ruthless, though generally skilful way in which the librettists tailor Shakespeare's drama to those requirements. The ending can seem perfunctory, with Hamlet’s killing of Claudius taking place at Ophelia’s funeral, followed by a jolly chorus proclaiming him king. Subsequent attempts have been made to kill Hamlet at the end, with mixed success. However, as shown at a major modern revival at Buxton in 1982, the acclamation of Hamlet as king can be shown to be seen by him as a fate worse than death, and therefore appropriately tragic.

Hamlet’s drinking song and Ophelia’s mad scene may seem like old-fashioned devices, though they are effective. There are excellent scenes for the encounters with the ghost and the gravediggers. The melody for the Hamlet/Ophelia duet is also memorable. An effective solo for saxophone, then a recent invention, accompanies the players’ mime scene. The closet scene between Hamlet and Gertrude should be very successful. At Buxton, the dramatic performances of Thomas Allen and Josephine Veasey ensured this was the climax of the opera.

Characters
Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (baritone)
Ophelia, daughter of Polonius, in love with Hamlet (soprano)
Claudius, now King, after murdering his brother (bass)
Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother, now married to Claudius (mezzo-soprano)
Laertes, Ophelia’s brother (tenor)
Marcellus, friend of Hamlet (tenor)
Horatio, friend of Hamlet (baritone)
Ghost of Hamlet’s father, the late king (bass)
Polonius, father to Laertes and Ophelia (baritone)
Two gravediggers (tenor & bass)

Plot Summary
The first act shows Hamlet’s reaction to the marriage of Claudius and Gertrude, followed by his encounter with the ghost. Act Two introduces Ophelia, then the players, with a grand chorus scene for the performance of the play. The third Act contains Hamlet’s reaction to Claudius’s prayers then the closet scene. The fourth Act concentrates on Ophelia’s mad scene, and the last Act begins with the interlude with the gravediggers and Hamlet’s fight with Laertes, interrupted by the arrival of Ophelia’s funeral cortege.

RECORDINGS

EMI 5 99447 9 (2 DVDs) Sung in French Recorded 2003

Conductor: Bertrand de Billy Directors: Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser
Orchestra of Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona
Simon Keenlyside (Hamlet), Natalie Dessay (Ophélie), Alain Vernhes (Claudius).

The staging by the established team of Caurier and Leiser has been touring major European houses for several years, visiting Geneva, Barcelona and London, before going to the New York Met. Whether this has established the piece in the repertoire remains to be seen, but the quality of the performances by Keenlyside and Dessay give it every chance. The closet scene works well, with Béatrice Uria-Monzon as a dramatic Gertrude, and the ghost’s appearances are presented convincingly. It is made clear that Hamlet is quite seriously wounded by Laertes, and not happy at the prospect of coronation. The weaknesses of the rushed finale are papered over quite well. However Claudius does not dominate as he should, or project the ideal degree of evil.

EMI 7 54820 2 (3 CDs) Sung in French Recorded 1993

Conductor: Antonio de Almeida
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Thomas Hampson (Hamlet), June Anderson (Ophélie), Samuel Ramey (Claudius).

The notable feature of this recording is that it provides two endings. These are the original, where Hamlet is wounded by Laertes, but survives to take the throne, as well as the alteration performed in London in 1869, where he kills Claudius and then himself. It must be said that both versions fail to convince dramatically, but they do bring the opera to a swift end, with all characters, (even including the ghost in the original version), gathering at Ophelia’s graveside. The performance is generally excellent. Denyce Graves as Gertrude and Gregory Kunde as Laertes give excellent support.

DECCA 433 857-2 (3 mid-price CDs) Sung in French Recorded 1983

Conductor: Richard Bonynge
Orchestra of Welsh National Opera
Sherrill Milnes (Hamlet), Joan Sutherland (Ophélie), James Morris (Claudius).

This was the first attempt to record Hamlet complete in the studio, and it is generally well performed. Gösta Winbergh is excellent as Laertes and John Tomlinson gives the ghost an impressive performance. However Barbara Conrad is not as dramatic as is required for Gertrude, and while Sutherland sings as well as can be expected, her voice no longer has the necessary bright and youthful tone required for Ophelia. Only one ending is given – a variant devised by the conductor – in which Hamlet suffers a more serious wound in his scuffle with Laertes, but is still able to kill Claudius before he dies.

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