The name Ambroise Thomas spells anathema in Anglo-Saxon circles. Not only did he write an opera in French based on the greatest play in the English language, he also had the temerity to change the ending. The rumour I heard was that he has Hamlet surviving the duel and living happily ever after with Ophelia but that turns out to be an exaggeration.
If there had been an Oscar in 1868 for best adapted screenplay, I would have awarded it to his librettists, Michel Carré and Jules Barbier for this cheeky adaptation of Shakespeare's Hamlet. To turn a 4-hour play into a 3-hour opera is quite a feat of condensation. In the process they dispense with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern entirely; Laertes and Fortinbras are rolled into one. Polonius only has a walk-on part and is not killed by Hamlet. Most surprising of all, Hamlet does not die at the end. In fact his closing line, gazing down at Ophelia's grave is: "my soul is in the grave, alas, and I am king". That played quite well to my ears although I was less happy with the role of the ghost of Hamlet's father. He appears like a deus ex machina at the end to tidy up all the loose ends in the plot.
Readers of my opera reviews will know that, when Mrs G is away, I like to take down two or more versions of the same opera from my shelves and compare them. Mrs G is at a conference in India this week so, apart from an irate phone call from Mumbai telling me to turn the television down, I have been in opera heaven. Unusually, though, I chose to compare this opera with the 1980 film of Shakespeare's play, starring Derek Jacobi, just to remind myself of how much Thomas left on the cutting-room floor. In making this comparison, we should remember that Thomas is not the only person to mess with Hamlet: Laurence Olivier's famous 1948 version comes in at 2 ½ hours and I saw a version at Stratford a few years ago that managed to get through the play in a snappy two hours.
What do we gain with Thomas' version? Firstly, it should be said that a truncated Hamlet still gives a better plot than most operas. We also get a star vehicle for the baritone Thomas Hampson and the soprano Natalie Dessay. Hampson, as Hamlet, really does get to sing "Être ou non être" and it is quite effective. Hampson and Dessay, as Ophelia, make an attractive couple and there seems to be a real spark between them. They get a sensuous first act duet "Doute de la lumiere". The real highlight of the piece is Ophelia's mad scene and suicide that takes up the whole of Act 4. This is a thrilling tour de force and a triumph for Dessay in what must be her career-defining role.
The opera is attractively set in what looks like the 1920s. The chorus, in flapper costumes, sometimes remind me of Offenbach but there's no harm in that.. Hampson wears what appears to be a velour jumpsuit throughout, possibly an unwise choice since, like most of us, he needs to lose a few pounds. The piece is played with a minimum of scenery against a mainly black background, which is how I like it.
What we lose is a 4-hour rumination on the human condition. Everyone should see the full Hamlet two or three times in a lifetime but, frankly, it is an ordeal. The brain may be willing but the buttocks are weak. I thoroughly enjoyed Thomas' distillation of the play and, given a choice, I think I would prefer it in all but my most severely intellectual moods.
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