In his dressing room after bringing down the house as Hamlet in the opera by Ambroise Thomas, a renowned baritone brushed off a shaken visitor's praise with this rejoinder: "There's not one minute in this piece that moves me." On a different occasion, another veteran of the role had this to say: "When Nadia Boulanger was asked to name the quintessential French grand opera, her reply was Hamlet. Playing the prince allows me to go deeper inside myself than I can with almost any other role."
These were personal communications, but on the eve of a Hamlet renaissance, they seem worth sharing. On March 16, the Metropolitan Opera gives the New York premiere of a production by Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser that has been seen in Geneva (1996), London (2003) and Barcelona (2003), where it was captured for video by EMI. Simon Keenlyside and Natalie Dessay, who have been with the show from the start, are once again on hand, reunited with Louis Langrée, their conductor also in Geneva and London. And on May 19, Washington National Opera takes up the gauntlet with a production designed and directed by Thaddeus Strassberger, originally mounted four years ago in Kansas City, where the charismatic Americans Franco Pomponi and Lauren Skuce were the stars. The international Washington cast is headed by Carlos Alvarez and Diana Damrau, both new to their roles; Plácido Domingo conducts. In France, Thomas is seeing renewed action this season, too, with a brace of different coproductions eventually to be seen in a half-dozen regional cities.
In his book Recycling Shakespeare, the playwright and actor Charles Marowitz distinguished Shakespearean partisans of four types: the Conservatives, who want to "preserve the integrity" of Shakespeare by clinging to what they have always known about him; the Moderates, who tolerate updating and other such window-dressing so long as "the basic structure and spirit" remain intact; the Radicals, who crave "the startling reinterpretations which enable Shakespeare's work to deliver new sensations"; and finally the Lunatic Fringe, who, in a happy phrase, would not think twice about "commingling Star Wars and the Wars of the Roses."
Robert Wilson's Hamlet — A Monologue, performed solo with a trunk of props and costumes, qualifies as mildly Lunatic Fringe, Tom Stoppard's Beckett-meets-the-Bard tragicomedy Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead as Lunatic Fringe with a vengeance.
Setting Shakespearean drama to music may in itself reflect a lunatic mentality, but here as in all things, there are degrees. Both Berlioz and Gounod produced works called Roméo et Juliette, Berlioz a high-Lunatic "dramatic symphony" with soloists and chorus (1847), Gounod a five-act opera that announces its conservatism from the very outset by setting Shakespeare's introductory chorus in four-part harmony ("Two households both alike in dignity/ In fair Verona, where we lay our scene…").
Though by our lights, Thomas and his librettists, Jules Barbier and Michel Carré, played fast and loose with Hamlet, they — and receptive contemporaries, too — probably viewed the opera as a perfectly straight-ahead representation of Shakespeare's play. In the nineteenth-century pantheon, Shakespeare towered as a genius, of course, but also as a barbarian, whose extravagance and breaches of decorum required resolute editorial intervention.
That said, our grandparents' grandparents were perfectly capable of spotting the flaws in the Thomas Hamlet. Consider this unsigned review in The New York Times in 1884, sixteen years after the Paris Opera premiere. "The German mind views with horror Gounod's attempt to transfer Goethe's immortal poem to the lyric stage," the critic wrote, warming up with a reference to Faust, "and an English-speaking public ought to contemplate with still greater dismay the endeavor of a composer of French opéra comique to set to music Shakespeare's immortal tragedy."
It got worse. "Granting at the outset, that Hamlet will never be set to music," the review continued, "it must none the less be conceded that the effort to accomplish an impossibility may be more or less unsuccessful. No musician of recognized merit would be likely to fail more completely than M. Thomas has failed in the endeavor to Gallicize Shakespeare and bind the poet's creatures and words to the exigencies of tune and rhythm. The opera, in brief, is pretentious and wearisome."
The reference to Faust is very much to the point. Like the Hamlet of Thomas, the operatic Faust requires audiences to blot out all but the haziest memory of its source, and for many of us, that is simply impossible. In The New Grove Dictionary of Opera entry on Jules Barbier, coauthor with Michel Carré of the librettos for both operas, as well as for Offenbach's Contes d'Hoffmann (which is open to many of the same criticisms), Christopher Smith gives an initially persuasive explanation of why this is so:
Few operas have been so popular for so long [as Faust], but the work now appears dated, not least because the libretto trivializes the masterpiece on which it is based, quarrying conventional operatic scenes out of great drama. Passion becomes sentimentality, and great characters are reduced to merely effective roles…. The gulf between Goethe's Faust and Barbier's is an indication of the librettist's limitations, and the consequence is a work that is too much of its time to transcend the age in which it was written.
For confirmation, look no further than the end of the first scene of the opera. It takes Goethe the better part of four scenes to get to the pact with the devil, yet in a story-telling sense and perhaps even philosophically, the libretto has left out nothing that Gounod has failed to say in the music. (The brooding instrumental preamble to Faust's opening monologue, so reminiscent of Tchaikovsky's scene-painting in Act II of Swan Lake — written eighteen years later! — works wonders in this regard.) Then, poof! Off fly the gloomy scholar's robes to reveal not an insatiable seeker after life experience in its broadest sense but merely his inner playboy, raring to paint the town red.
To Gounod's credit, his Faust hangs together better than the Hamlet of Thomas. What is more, the incongruities between the original and the adaptation are inevitably much, much more pronounced in the latter case. Goethe's medievalist trappings fooled no one. His poem was still contemporary literature in Gounod's day, and the sentimentality of which Smith complains factored into Goethe's drama, too.
My first acquaintance with the Hamlet of Thomas came with my discovery of Ophelia's mad scene in my grandparents' phonograph-record collection of 78rpm antiques. The pop and crackle of the Victrola notwithstanding, Nellie Melba soon had me under her spell with her bejeweled arabesques. Better still was the mournful ballad that came after, interwoven with a wordless wisp of a refrain spun out over the nervous pulse of a drum, like birdsong from some undiscovered country.
Years passed before the next excerpt came my way — a hearty drinking song for Hamlet, sung perhaps by Robert Merrill. It instantly registered with me as counterintuitive that the title role had not been written for a tenor. (As I later learned, it had been. Only when no tenor of sufficient artistry could be found was the music recast for Jean-Baptiste Faure, a baritone star of the very first rank, whose likeness was captured in a full-length portrait by Manet.) By this time, however, I had received sufficient indoctrination as a Shakespearean to be on my guard. A drinking song for Hamlet, who sneers at his uncle's state revels? Please. (But secretly, I thought the tune was swell.)
My curiosity must have crested when complete recordings began to appear, one starring Joan Sutherland and Sherrill Milnes, conducted by Richard Bonynge (1983), another starring June Anderson and Thomas Hampson, conducted by Antonio de Almeida (1993). But around the start of the twenty-first century, I was shaken awake by a seventy-five-minute CD on Malibran, a historic label dedicated to French artists and French repertoire. It featured four Hamlets, four Ophelias, two Queens and one King, captured mostly in the 1930s and '40s, documenting a living tradition stretching back to the premiere at the Paris Opera in 1868.
On the Malibran disc, the producer cut from an opening of pomp and circumstance to a love duet patently inspired by the scrap of poetry from one of Hamlet's letters to Ophelia ("Doubt thou the stars are fire"). In the play, the verse hovers somewhere between parody (from the pen of the playwright) and self-parody (on the part of Hamlet); in the opera, it soars on wings of unabashed romance. As a freestanding lyric utterance — sung here by the stalwart Pierre Deldi and the tremulous, ecstatic Germaine Féraldy — the duet seems in its way as ardent and as valid a response to Shakespeare as any scene of Berlioz in Roméo et Juliette. In the grave, lyrical voice of the American Arthur Endrèze, who was a favorite with the French, Hamlet's invocation of his father's spirit in arms ("Spectre infernal"), "spoken" sotto voce in a tense arioso over a spare, wary vamp in the orchestra, invaded my mind in quite a different way. (Only in retrospect did I realize how wide the gulf yawns between the hushed horror in Thomas and the thunderstruck emotionalism of the parallel passage of the play, "Angels and ministers of grace defend us!") As delivered by Lucien Lovano, the King's monologue (derived from "O, my offense is rank") seemed similarly free and right, both at once.
In the face of such evidence, the notion that the Hamlet of Thomas might be, as Smith said of the operatic Faust, "too much of its time to transcend the age in which it was written" felt untenable. Time for a hard look at the entire opera, facilitated by the Bonynge and de Almeida recordings. As the material became familiar — at this point without the distractions of late-twentieth- and early-twenty-first-century stagecraft — it struck me that the opera captured, as in a magic lantern, the very aspects of Shakespeare the general public of Thomas's time must have regarded as fundamental.
If that hypothesis holds, those aspects turn out not to be — as they have been in our time — the overarching structures of metaphor that control the plays, the visionary insight into character, the boundless richness of the language, the knowledge of the chaos that seethes behind the masks of civilization. Judging from Thomas's Hamlet, his contemporaries saw the Shakespearean essence in the convolutions of the plot, the self-conscious nobility of the leading characters, their preoccupation with honor and the lofty rhetoric that fueled the classic seventeenth-century tragedies of their own Corneille and Racine, who prized nothing above a grand tirade. In the end, the French in the nineteenth century may have seen little to choose between Shakespearean tragedy and the fevered melodrama of Victor Hugo (Hernani) or the elder Alexandre Dumas (La Tour de Nesle).
Placing Thomas and Shakespeare side by side, there is no denying that the librettists have dismembered the original design. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have been eliminated, along with the iron man Fortinbras and that will-o'-the-wisp named Osric. So little is left of Polonius, and that little so insignificant, that he, too, has effectively disappeared. His son, the cynical Laertes, has been stuffed with sawdust. Rather than embarking for the fleshpots of Paris, he takes off for Norway on the king's business, not warning his sister Ophelia against Hamlet's attentions but actually placing her under his protection.
Whole arcs of the action have been flung away. (What snoop behind the arras? What voyage to England? What crooked duel?) The episodes that remain are shuffled into incoherence, with verbal echoes from the play ("Get thee to a nunnery!") cropping up wildly out of place. Failing to find Hamlet right away, Horatio and a sidekick blab the dread news of the Ghost's appearance to a squadron of frolicking young officers, who are totally unimpressed. Hamlet's monologues — "To be or not to be" most grievously — are crunched to telegrams. The Queen, it turns out, was complicit in the poisoning of her first husband. The whole existential mystery, beginning with the panicky first line of the play — "Who's there?" — has melted into mere haze. And why, for heaven's sake, is the music for the mime of The Murder of Gonzago so harmless? Why the transitional instrumentals that seem written for a merry-go-round? But thank goodness for the Gravediggers.
In the end, mapping the opera on the play is an exercise in futility. But place the opera in a timeline of nineteenth-century Paris, and the shreds and patches begin to fall into place. In the rear-view mirror, Meyerbeer's Robert le Diable (1831) glides into view, along with his Les Huguenots (1836) and Le Prophète (1849), the ballets La Sylphide (1832) and Giselle (1841), the Faust adaptations of Berlioz (1846) and of course Gounod (1859). If the Hamlet of Thomas does not crown the series, neither is it disgraced in such company, and the funhouse distortions in the family resemblances to a certain late-Elizabethan tragedy must not be held against it.