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Hamlet - Ambroise Thomas
professor at the Paris Conservatory, and for some years its director, the French composer
Ambroise Thomas wrote twenty operas between 1837 and 1882. Only two, Mignon and Hamlet,
remain, at least occasionally, in the contemporary repertory. Their great success when
they premiered in Paris (1866 and 1868, respectively) placed Thomas briefly at the acme of
French opera composers, but over time his stature has declined, outshone by his
predecessor Berlioz and by his student, Massenet.
As always in the transition from spoken theatre to opera, the libretto
by Barbier and Carre (Tales of Hoffman, Gounod's Faust) takes some
liberties with the Shakespeare plot. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, for example, have
vanished entirely from the opera and Polonius is reduced to a mere plotting convenience.
More significantly, Hamlet survives and is crowned king at the conclusion. In an 1869
Covent Garden production, just a year after the Paris premiere, the familiar Shakespearean
ending was restored, with Hamlet a suicide after taking the King's life.
The production currently on view at the Royal Opera originated in Geneva
in 1996. Both the Hamlet (British baritone Simon Keenlyside) and the Ophelia (French
soprano Natalie Dessay) from that production recreate their roles at Covent Garden and
they are reason enough to attend. Keenlyside not only makes a dashing and virile young
prince, but, more importantly, he possesses a superb, rich baritone instrument that
projects effortlessly. Add to that a natural and unaffected stage presence combined with
admirable thespian skills and the result is a Hamlet about as good as it gets.
Dessay acquitted herself well, creating a sympathetic and vulnerable
victim of love betrayed by circumstance. She handled the difficult coloratura of the mad
scene pitch-perfectly, delivering jewel-like tones, if something less that the sense of
genuine derangement that would have provided dramatic heft. Lay the blame on stage
directors Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier who got the poor girl distracted with an
overabundance of floral distributions, as if that could substitute for an internalized
portrayal of madness. Compounding the problem, they started the revolving-stage scene
change even before the music of the aria was complete, stagehands visibly running about,
fully destroying what mood had been set.
The production itself is attractive, if somewhat bare-bones. Designer
Christian Fenouillat places architectural elements--castle walls and brick columns that
have the look of a somewhat impoverished court--on the aforementioned turntables, allowing
for rapid and mostly seamless scene changes. Any number of Christophe Forey's lighting
cues seemed to have gone astray, particularly in Hamlet's major confrontation scene with
Gertrude, when Keenlyside had to do some sidestepping so as not to be lost in darkness as
he sang. Agostina Cavalca has designed timeless, but modern costuming, simple for the men,
elegantly gowned for the women.
There are moments in this production (five acts performed with one
intermission) when the drama clicks in and is absorbing. In particular, in the second act
finale, after the players have performed their thinly veiled pantomime of Claudius' murder
of his brother the King, Hamlet drapes himself in a tablecloth and spills wine over his
head, the red stains spreading over the cloth like so much spilt blood, an effective
visual supplement to the passion of the scene. Hamlet's later confrontation with Gertrude,
despite distracting stage business with the portraits, gains great intensity from inspired
singing and acting of great conviction from both Keenlyside and mezzo-soprano Yvonne Neff.
Still, the ultimate weakness of Thomas' score is evident, even in as
accomplished an overall performance as this one. The libretto is efficient, but the music,
while often melodious and accommodating to the voices, never achieves sufficient emotional
depth to render Hamlet a genuinely tragic figure. Covent Garden has reverted to the
original ending of the opera, with Hamlet surviving to be crowned the new king, but the
triumph seems inappropriate and the surrounding devastation without significant resonance.
London, May 16, 2003
- Arthur Lazere