If You Chop Down Thomas’ “Hamlet,” It Works!

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THOMAS: Hamlet / Thomas Hampson. bar (Hamlet); June Anderson, sop (Ophelia); Samuel Ramey, bass (Claudius); Gregory Kunde, ten (Laerte); Denyce Graves, mezzo (Gertrude); Jean-Philippe Courtis, bass (Ghost); Gerard Gardino, ten (Marcellus); Michel Trempont, bs (Polonius); Thierry Felix, bar (1st Gravedigger); Jean-Pierre Furlan, ten (2nd Gravedigger); Ambrosian Opera Chorus; London Philharmonic Orch.; Antonio de Almeida, cond /Warner Classics 7290872, also available for free streaming on Spotify or YouTube

For most of my life, I’ve been told what a “great” opera Ambroise Thomas’ Hamlet is, yet most people—including several diehard opera-lovers I know—have always thought very little of it. When Franco Faccio’s Amleto was rediscovered and revived a couple of years ago, with its far superior libretto by Arrigo Boito and its more penetrating (if briefer) depiction of the character, many opera fans rejoiced. Yet the Thomas Hamlet persists, an albatross around the neck of the opera world, sold to the masses largely due to two scenes: Hamlet’s drinking song and Ophelia’s “mad scene” aria, neither of which are really dramatic and the latter of which is primarily a tuneful string of coloratura fireworks.

But recently, when reading baritone Titta Ruffo’s autobiography, I began to think a little differently about it when I learned how much thought he put into his interpretation of the title character, how hard he worked to get just the right tone and timbre of voice to convey Hamlet’s melancholy and feelings of alienation, and how much his interpretation was liked and appreciated by some very cultured listeners who knew the Shakespeare original very well (including, but not limited to, British critic and voice pedagogue Herman Klein). The excerpts that Ruffo recorded, not only sung passages from the opera but two spoken monologues (in Italian) from Shakespeare, clearly show an outstanding vocal actor, but in some ways his interpretation is just a bit too “outward,” designed to project into a large theater. This was indeed considered great acting on the operatic stage in his day—it’s very similar to several of Feodor Chaliapin’s operatic characters—but our view of drama has changed over the past century, and we now appreciate much subtler nuances nowadays.

Anyway, with my interest piqued, I decided to re-evaluate the entire opera. I listened to parts of the Sherrill Milnes recording (with Joan Sutherland as Ophelia), but although he does indeed interpret the role it is too big-boned, even more so than Ruffo. Hamlet is not William Tell or even Macbeth; he is more tortured, more indecisive, less able to cope with the tragedy that has befallen him. In a YouTube video, baritone Thomas Hampson explains Hamlet’s character very well: “He hasn’t lived long enough to be able to cope with the tragedy that has befallen him.” And he also explains that although the libretto of Thomas’ opera is clearly not pure Shakespeare, the legend of Hamlet predates Shakespeare and thus is not 100% dependent on the way he wrote the character…though, of course, it is the richest and fullest delineation of his character.

I found Hampson’s reading of the text to be near-perfect for our times and sensibilities. Playing to the microphone rather than to an audience in a huge opera house, Hampson scales down on the volume of his voice, not to a whisper but at least to a soft conversational level. This affords him the opportunity to give the words and the music even finer gradations of volume and expression than those Ruffo was capable of, and it works.

The biggest problem in the score, of course, was Ambroise Thomas. More of an entertainer than an artist, his goal was to please audiences with memorable and peppy melodies, not to entice them with musical or theatrical nuance. To a certain degree, the character of Hamlet is simplified in his opera. He is not a deeply tragic and conflicted character, but rather just a sad young man seeking revenge for his father’s murder. Many of the subsidiary characters in the Shakespeare play are omitted, and Ophelia is given a much more prominent role than in the play—simply because “coloratura” sopranos were highly entertaining to the French, thus he wanted to give them what they wanted. Most, but not all, of her “mad scene” consists of nothing but coloratura fiddly bits strung together to make a “scene.” It’s not quite as bad as Lucia di Lammermoor’s mad scene, but it’s only one step up from it.

The opera is also somewhat overloaded with peppy choral music, in-one-ear-and-out-the-other orchestral interludes, and scenes and arias for the other characters that simply aren’t very good. (And then there’s the ballet music, which is so awful that I think even Thomas didn’t like writing it very much.) One of the rare instances that is good is Gertrude’s aria, which, strangely enough, resembles Saint-Saëns’ Samson et Dalila. But if you do some judicious pruning, you might be surprised at how effective, within limits, most of the music is.

I managed to trim the opera down from three and a quarter hours to two hours and four minutes. Some of the “pageantry” music I left in simply because it provides an effective contrast with Hamlet’s generally more introspective music, and contrast is necessary in any opera. As for Hamlet’s famous drinking song, “O vin dissipe la tristesse,” although it shows off the baritone’s voice splendidly, it is not normally a piece that fits the character—Ruffo didn’t much like singing it, but realized that this was one of the things that “sold” the opera because it showed off the splendor of his full voice—but in this performance, Hampson sings it as if through gritted teeth, almost mocking the others for celebrating when he himself was feeling morbid, thus I left it in. As for Ophelia’s “mad scene,” the earlier, slower sections are moderately effective, just as in the Lucia mad scene. It’s the coloratura fireworks that degrade it, making of it a purely entertaining piece rather than one that reflects her state of mind.

In the track list below, I’ve put a line through the tracks that you shouldn’t bother with. In the case of Ophelia’s “mad scene,” however, one should download or record the slower music in tracks three and four of CD 3 and excise the faster, flashier music.

CD 1

tracks 1

CD 2

tracks 2

CD 3

tracks 3

If you then listen to this abridged version as the “complete” opera, you’ll be amazed at how well much of the music works despite its dated style. No, it’s not the Faccio or the Joseph Summers Hamlets, but it is effective in its own way, particularly the way this cast sings it and the way de Almeida conducts it.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

Follow me on Twitter (@Artmusiclounge) or Facebook (as Monique Musique)

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