(Kopie 1)
02.06.2022 13:59

First performance of the tenor version of Thomas’s “Hamlet”

Two hundred years after the birth of Ambroise Thomas, his opera Hamlet is published in the “Opéra français” series. This publication makes available one of the most highly-regarded French operas in a reliable, scholarly edition, good reason for a renaissance of the French Shakespeare adaptation.

In 1859 Gounod made an opera of Goethe's Faust, so in 1866 Thomas created Mignon based on Wilhelm Meister; Gounod set Romeo and Juliet (1867), so Thomas wrote Hamlet (1868). All four operas had librettos by Barbier and Carré, the most successful librettists of the day. Operatic politics in France were a complicated game, with great prizes for the winners. But in this case, both composers were winners; all four operas dominated French stages at the end of the 19th century, and were well known all over the world. In the 20th century these work faded a little, but none ever lost their charm and their appeal, and there will always be singers and audiences who want to keep them in the repertoire.

Ambroise Thomas devoted at least six years to the composition of his Hamlet. This is not itself extraordinary since Meyerbeer – still alive when Thomas began work and the Paris Opéra’s most successful purveyor of grand works – was notoriously slow in completing such successes as Le Prophète and L’Africaine. Thomas undoubtedly felt the mighty challenge his new work presented, but it was not, as we might suppose, the challenge of rendering Shakespeare’s masterpiece (perhaps the greatest drama in Western literature) in music;  it was not deep apprehension about setting such lines as ‘Être ou ne pas être’ or ‘Allez dans un cloître’;  it was not hesitation as to whether the opera should have a happy ending or not. For Thomas the challenge was the Paris Opéra itself, the acknowledged world capital of the lyric stage, the theatre for which the greatest living master of opera, Verdi, was also composing a new work, Don Carlos.

It was not his first experience of the Opéra, although it must have felt like it. After precocious success as a student, winning the Prix de Rome in 1832 at the age of twenty-one, Thomas had a ballet and two short operas staged there in 1839-42, but the operas were failures and he turned instead to the Opéra-Comique.  His next twelve operas were all written for that house, and three of them were outstandingly successful, culminating in 1866 with Mignon (1866), Paris’s favourite light opera at the end of the century.

As we know from the careers of Sullivan and Offenbach, few composers of light opera can resist the temptation to attempt something more serious and substantial at the end of their careers. Thomas, a gifted and ambitious musician, would not have been content to allow posterity to think of him as capable only of the frolics of opéra-comique, even though the tone of that genre had been rising sharply, thanks in part to his own efforts. The pathetic, the sentimental, even the tragic, had become familiar features of recent opéra-comique, and for Mignon the blend of sentiment and literary fancy was the hallmark of its success, as it was for Gounod’s Faust also.

Being a composer of lighter operas never bothered old Auber, perhaps because he had had some historic successes at the Opéra in his younger days, but Thomas, who was to succeed Auber in the prestigious post of director of the Paris Conservatoire, aspired to more serious recognition, spurred no doubt by memories of failure twenty-five years before. Berlioz had similarly set aside memories of the failure of his Benvenuto Cellini at the Opéra when he composed Les Troyens twenty years later for the same theatre. But whereas Berlioz’s masterpiece was rejected by the Opéra, Thomas’s Hamlet was to succeed magnificently in its principal aim of providing the Opéra with a grand five-act work which would give its singers and its audiences success and satisfaction for many years. The appointment to the Conservatoire three years later was an unforeseen bonus. 

Composing for the Opéra carried its own set of rules and traditions. The libretto had to be approved by the management and the official censorship, always notoriously touchy about dethroning kings and murdering impostors. The work had to be laid out in five acts, with a libretto entirely in verse and sung throughout.  There had to be scenic variety and splendour.  There had to be plenty for the chorus, ballet and orchestra to do, and the music had to suit the singers assigned to their roles. There had to be a proper balance of solo airs, duets, and larger ensembles. The work had, if possible, to please the critics, the snobs and the gallery all at once.  It did not have to be faithful to its literary source.

How well did Hamlet conform to this model of a good opera? The librettists, Jules Barbier and Michel Carré, were deft adapters of literary classics from Ovid to Goethe and fluent manufacturers of rhymed verse of the following kind:

Voici la riante saison,
Le doux mois des nids et des roses!
Le soleil brille a l’horizon,
Et nos portes ne sont plus closes!

Together they wrote over thirty opera librettos, so it is no surprise if certain rhymes and phrases recur from one work to another.  Here, for Hamlet, they had Ducis’s well-known translation of Shakespeare as their starting point, so that ‘Frailty, thy name is woman!’, for example, comes out as

O femme! tu t’appelles
Inconstance et fragilité!

The dramatic structure of the libretto works clearly and succinctly, with the main threads of the plot set out.  Laertes, the only tenor, plays very little part, and his father Polonius even less, yet the tortuous relationships of Hamlet with Claudius, with his mother and with Ophelia are carefully and searchingly explored, especially in the duets and trios, first a duet for Hamlet and Ophelia, then a duet for Claudius and the Queen, then a trio for Hamlet, Ophelia and the Queen, coming to a climax at the end of Act III with the great confrontational duet between Hamlet and the Queen. Act IV, as often at the Paris Opéra, provided divertissement and some relaxation from dramatic action, and Act V brings the dénouement:  Ophelia is dead, drowned in her derangement, the usurping King is despatched by Hamlet at the behest of the Ghost, the treacherous queen is exiled to the cloister, and Hamlet is hailed as king. There was nothing in this to disappoint or disturb the Opéra’s patrons.

Thomas was careful to use the off-stage brass, one of Adolphe Sax’s legacies from his brief service at the Opéra, and as an innovation he gave a striking solo to Sax’s other momentous legacy, the saxophone. The orchestration presupposes players of high musicianship and skill, especially in the solo writing for cor anglais, clarinet, flute and trombone. There is much for the chorus to do, as lords and ladies, soldiers, actors, servants and Danish peasants.  There is a substantial ballet in Act IV, lasting over twenty minutes and contributing nothing to the thrust of the drama; this is exactly what the Opéra demanded. The skill of the music and its opportunites for  varied dance steps, colourful costumes and scenic delight are perfectly within a well-defined French tradition. There are scenes of pageantry at the beginning and in Act III when a Danish March prepares for the Players’ scene, and opportunities for special stage effects with the well-spaced appearances of the Ghost on the battlements at the end of Act I (against a tolling bell), at the end of Act III, and, crucially, in the final scene. Comedy, which might have surfaced in the Gravediggers’ scene, is kept firmly at arm’s length.

In the solo roles Thomas had a singular asset in the person of Christine Nilsson, already a star of coloratura at the age of twenty-five. At her request he included a melody from her homeland, Sweden, as the exquisite ‘Ballade’ sung by Ophelia in Act V. Her voice was pure and agile, and as Ophelia’s mind begins to disintegrate her voice begins to soar in dizzying scales and roulades. The role of Hamlet was sung in 1868 by Jean-Baptiste Faure, a splendid baritone who had sung Mephistopheles in Gounod’s Faust and Posa in Verdi’s Don Carlos. Famous for his vivid characterisation, he was painted in the role of Hamlet by Manet. The Queen has a substantial part, with strong secondary roles for the King and the Ghost. All in all, it was an opera of excellent variety and balance, and the critics were entranced both by the performance and by the work itself. The public adored it. By 1914 it had been performed over three hundred times at the Opéra alone and was still in the repertoire in 1938. For the opera's first production in London in 1869 Thomas produced an alternative ending, mollifying English sensibilities by having Hamlet die at the end. The new edition will include both alternative endings.

So where does Shakespeare come in? Thomas’s public knew its Shakespeare but was not troubled by theatrical departures from the text. In 1995, after two generations of intellectual purism, we can perhaps again understand that an opera’s first obligation is not to a long-dead poet but rather to the librettists and composer who wrote it and to the modern audiences who are to hear it. We are perhaps reluctant to put up with twenty minutes of ballet music when our protagonists are in psychological torment, but we can settle for less than the gilded scenic splendour that was expected (and affordable) in 1868, and we can certainly accept a Hamlet without its philosophical probing and without its pile of corpses at the end. How so? The answer is the music, vigorously inventive from beginning to end.

A new edition of this great opera is timely since all existing scores date back to the 1860s. The printed sources, a full score and a vocal score, do not agree with one another or with the autograph score, and both lack certain scenes, including the alternative ending devised by Thomas to allow Hamlet to die at the final curtain. Thomas's abundant sketches and drafts, as well as the autograph score, divided between the Bibliothèque nationale de France and the Bibliothèque-Musée de l'Opéra, both in Paris, provide further material that has not been available before.

Hugh Macdonald
(from [t]akte 1/2010)