Saturday, February 12, 2011

Shakespeare, Opera, Struggle: Ambroise Thomas' Hamlet

This blog post is to accompany a paper about the 1868 opera Hamlet, by Ambroise Thomas. I have written it for the Shakespeare Association of America, where I'm participating in a seminar on "Shakespeare and Opera" in April. The main function of the blog is to allow readers of the paper to see and hear parts of the score and recordings. The paper itself is much longer (and, I hope, clearer). You can download it at the end of this blog, if you'd like.  Here I'll just give the very rough outline. 

Read on, or just enjoy some clips of this beautiful opera!
The argument
The paper's premise is that there's a struggle in Shakespeare opera adaptations between:
  1. the urge to see the opera as a performance of the Shakespearean original (so, we'd think: how faithful is it? did they get Shakespeare's Hamlet right? how could they possibly have left out Fortinbras? and so on); and
  2. the urge to see the opera as a thing in itself, not a dependent on what happens to be "the greatest work" by "the greatest poet," and so on.
I believe that this is a real struggle; that is, we can't just end it by coming down on one side or the other, dissing the opera for not being Shakespeare, or ignoring the obvious, that it IS Shakespearean. In a way, it's a struggle over "voice" -- does Shakespeare have control over what's voiced on stage (he did write the original words, after all)? or do the singers? the conductor? the composer?

Noticing that struggle over voice, really being aware of it as we see the opera, can make us notice some related struggles that are both exciting and meaningful in that very complex experience of watching opera. That is, opera proceeds by struggles over the voice: who's going to get to sing the role? a soprano, or a mezzo? the famous star, or the newbie? (that's up to the producer, I guess) when does she get her big aria -- first act? third? IS there one? (that's pretty much up to the composer)? How much "airtime" does she get? what does the orchestra do while she's singing, or between songs (think the "Meditation" from Thaïs, which "signifies" the soprano's conversion from courtesan to convent)?
What key does she sing in, what meter, what pitch range? does she sing words, or vocalises?

Implicit in all these questions are the alternatives-- NOT getting airtime, being unvoiced, being upstaged. I'm interested, then, in seeing how the struggle for space, time, tonality, attention plays out in the opera. I think, to repeat myself, that that kind of ongoing struggle (as you'll see if you go further, I think it happens moment-by-moment in a good opera) is the electric excitement of opera. And, to close the circle, that it keeps us aware of that exciting struggle for performance rights between the opera and "Shakespeare."

OK, now a little about Thomas' Hamlet. You can see more, as always, at Wikipedia: there's a pretty good article and summary.

It's grand opera, of course: five acts, big orchestra, big roles. Hamlet, a baritone, really seems to love Ophélie (in the play, we're never quite sure, but this is opera); the king is a slimebag through and through, though he does get some repentence time; the queen, Hamlet's mother, is implicated in the murder (in the play, that is not clear). Lots of the same things happen as in the play -- a kind of coronation/wedding scene; the ghost's call to revenge his murder; "To be or not to be" (only, it being French, it's "Être ou ne pas être"); the play-within-the-play; the closet scene; the madness and death of Ophélie; a comic gravedigger; the eventual murder of the king. There are lots of things that don't happen: no Fortinbras, Rosencrantz, or Guildenstern; barely a Polonius (but, important, he's in on the murder, too, which, when Hamlet finds out, sours him on Ophélie); no pirates. And lots is changed: Ophélie and Hamlet have a love duet; Hamlet sings a drinking song before the players do their play; Ophélie goes mad in the meadows before a chorus of villagers, not in the court (the picture is of a late-19th-century singer named, wonderfully, Mignon Nevada, as Ophélie); and -- horror for Shakespeareans -- Hamlet does not die (at least, not in the French version; Thomas wrote an alternative ending for Covent Garden to assuage the English).

The opera was very popular, in part because its first Hamlet was Jean-Baptiste Faure, a spectacular baritone (Thomas had envisioned a tenor in the role, but Faure was too good to pass up, so it's a baritone role). Here's Manet's painting of Faure in the role.

On to some details. . .

Act 4: Ophélie's mad scene
Here is the score of Act 4

In my paper, I'm asking us to think about how we could see a relationship -- a dialectic, maybe -- between the first part of this act, and the second. The first part, is a 20-minute ballet of villagers, frolicking and singing in the meadows; this part is often seen today as totally silly, a vestige of Paris opera convention (apparently, you HAD to have a ballet). The second part is Ophélie's madness and death, which is stunning singing, coloratura virtuosity that knocks everybody out even today. How to see these two as part of one thing? Clearly, they are in conflict. My premise, simply, is that the ballet sets up a mode of music against which Ophélie has to work: she has to get the attention of the chorus and the dancers, she has to "pull" the orchestra away from the trivial dances into her ballads. She has to assert herself against what has been pre-scripted for the act. Just as Thomas has to assert himself against Shakespeare. . .

I'll post an mp3 of the ballet music if and when I can figure out how to do so. .  .

Here are two videos of Natalie Dessay doing the mad scene, from the Keenlyside/Dessay DVD. This production, like most, eliminates the chorus of villagers, so she just sings to the empty stage. But then, she's mad, right?


Act 5: Hamlet's revenge. 
In the paper, I explore the tragic elements of the ending. The problem with calling it "tragic" has always been that in the play (as you know), Hamlet dies after killing the king. In the opera, he lives; there's no duel with Laertes, no poisoned sword or cup, and no Fortinbras. The ghost comes back in Act 5 (he does not in Shakespeare) to command Hamlet to live and take the throne. Many have said this is an example of how grand opera (and the French) bastardize Shakespeare and miss the point of the tragedy. But I think the ending, even with Hamlet alive, is still tragic: he's haunted by the memory of Ophelia, whom he knows he betrayed (even while he also knows that her father, Polonius, betrayed him by conspiring to murder his, Hamlet's, father). He wants to die, but he has to reign. That compulsion to become king, by the way, probably has to do with the very unstable government of France in the mid-nineteenth-century: the opera premiered just two years before the political upheavals of 1870. 

The only video clip of the end of the opera that I can find is from the same production as the ones above. It uses the alternate ending, the so-called "Covent Garden" ending in which Hamlet does die of the duel with Laertes. For the way the Paris audience would have seen the opera, I think you have to go to the score or the CD. 

Even so, it's a pretty exciting ending. The part I discuss in the paper begins just before 7 minutes into the clip. 
 The drinking song

I don't deal with the drinking song in my paper, but it too is probably the part of the opera that "Shakespeareans" revile the most. What! The thinker Hamlet getting drunk? It was conventional to have such a song in operas -- called a brindisi. But it's also a pretty great song, and it actually sets up the very exciting and dramatic climax of Act 3, in which the wild (and drunk? or is he just acting drunk?) Hamlet brings on the players to present "The Murder of Gonzago," infuriates the king, and accuses him of regicide. 

Here's a clip of the drinking song, with Robert Merrill, from 1957:


Tammela said...

Fascinating to think about Shakespeare in opera -- it's a "play within a play" of sorts, as opera itself is an independent spectacle/genre in its own right. Thomas' Hamlet sounds like a pretty interesting take. I'd love to read your full paper.

Nick said...

Thanks for reading the blog. Yes, it is really interesting. It's the independence that I'm trying to get at... or is it a post-colonial status?

You can download from a page of my new website, at