Ambroise Thomas’ Hamlet – The Opera

Marlis Peterson and Simon Keenlyside in Hamlet(Photo: Mary Sohl/Metropolitan Opera)
Marlis Peterson and Simon Keenlyside in Hamlet(Photo: Mary Sohl/Metropolitan Opera)

Ambroise Thomas conceived Shakespeare’s melancholy Dane in an exceedingly melancholy mood. The average American is not too familiar with “Hamlet” as a drama to take kindly to it in its operatic guise, and if he missed nothing else he would miss the familiar quotations which are at least recognizable. The adjective cannot be applied to the majority of M. Thomas’s dramatic ideas. One fails to recognize them on a second meeting for the simple reason that they lack clear-cut outline.

This remark does not apply to Hamlet’s drinking song, which is even better than Girofle’s. It was probable that the opera was put on to enable a famous baritone (Jean Lasalle) to appear in one of his favorite roles.

–W.J. Henderson, New York Times, December 7, 1893

Poor Ambroise Thomas! He’s one of two composers I always single out for a lack of respect from our critical and musicological brethren and sisters. (The other is the hapless Francesco Cilea, whose 1901 Adriana Lecouvreur was good enough for Caruso in its world premiere.)

Hamlet was Ambroise Thomas’s sixth opera. He had had two previous successes. Le caid had a respectable run in Paris and was revived occasionally.

Mignon, based on Goethe, hit pay dirt. It featured Marie-Celestine Galli Mariee, who went on to create Bizet’s Carmen a few years later. Mignon has a lot going for it, including some sprightly tunes for tenor and coloratura – but the title character is slightly droopy.

Hamlet didn’t last as long, but unlike Mignon, our Danish prince is decidedly back!

There have been several European based revivals in recent years. The Patrice Caurier-Moshe Leiser production to be seen on March 27 is new to the Met but has been making the rounds for several years.

Soprano Natalie Dessay was announced for performances in New York. She’s had to cancel and Ohpelie will be sung by Marliss Petersen, who took over the role at very short notice. James Morris and Jennifer Larmore,  favorites of many a Met broadcast, sing Claudius and Gertrude, with tenor Toby Spence making a debut as Laetre. 

Yes, “To be or not to be” becomes “Etre ou ne pas etre?” in the French language libretto by Michel Carre and Jules Barbier, Parisian show doctors divin. Yes, Ophelie goes mad and strews the stage with flowers (“partagez-vous mes fleurs!”)

There’s even a phony happy ending, tacked on at the insistence of the directors of the Paris Opera: Hamlet is crowned King over the body of Claudius, but that ending wouldn’t wash today. Don’t worry. He dies at the Met. “Bonne nuit, o douce prince!”

Thomas’s music is rather generic. He doesn’t have a strong musical signature that would distinguish him from any other well intentioned composer writing well crafted music. He is a top C level composer.

The only true hit of the piece is the famous Brindisi -the drinking song from Act 2. Simon Keenlyside will ravish you with this. But for fifty years, this tune was owned by il leone – the nickname of the great Italian baritone Titta Ruffo.

Ruffo was strikingly handsome, and his ferocious voice made him a huge favorite in this role. Performances of Amleto (Ruffo always sang in Italian) dropped off when Ruffo retired in the late 1920s.

Closer to our own time, Sherrill Milnes owned the role, with performances in San Francisco, Toronto and New York. His was the first modern-stereo recording of the opera, with Dame Joan Sutherland in her final new role.

Dame Joan was convinced to sing Ophelie, even late career (and late career she was still better than anyone else) as a tribute to her great Australian predecessor, Nellie Melba.  Melba learned the opera from Ambroise Thomas. She sang the role at the Met in 1893  (“Mme Melba added very greatly to the performance” continued Henderson in the New York Times review cited above)-the last time the opera was given there until now.

If you want to hear some real madness in Ophelie’s mad scene, listen to Maria Callas depict in music, a young woman who has lost any connection to reality;  Callas never sang this role on the stage.

In its day, Ambrosie Thomas had a hit in Hamlet. It was a good enough opera for Lasalle,  Melba, Ruffo, Milnes, Sutherland and now for Keenlyside, Dessay, Petersen and Spence.

The Met offers a French conductor, Louis Langree-what a joy to have someone steeped in the language in charge. I enjoyed Hamlet-the opera! the one time I’ve seen it, with Milnes and Ashley Putnam at the New York City Opera.

Comments
  • Betsy Northrup

    I saw it – it was fantastic! And the music was beautiful.