Yesterday afternoon I made one of my rare ventures out of the city limits to go over to the Pacific Pipe warehouse, this summer’s base of operations for West Edge Opera. I attended the second of the three scheduled performances of Ambroise Thomas’ five-act opera Hamlet. (The third performance will take place this coming Saturday, August 19, at 1 p.m.)
I knew little about this opera beyond having been invited to sit in on a class at the Music Academy of the West at which Martial Singher coached a soprano friend of mine in Ophelia’s mad scene aria. However, going into this performance with more knowledge of Ophelia than of Hamlet turned out to be consistent with the historical context. It turned out that all of Paris was smitten with Ophelia after having seen the Irish actress Harriet Smithson play the part in 1827, when William Abbot presented a season of Shakespeare performances in English at the Odéon:
1827 illustration of Harriet Smithson as Ophelia (from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)
(One of the smitten was Hector Berlioz, who was so obsessed with Smithson that he eventually managed to marry her, after which things did not turn out very well for either of them.)
Hamlet is William Shakespeare’s longest play and probably his best known. A French play of the same name by Jean-François Ducis was first performed in 1769, but it consisted of little more than the basic revenge plot in Shakespeare’s version. As a friend of both Smithson and Berlioz, Alexandre Dumas prepared a version of greater fidelity to Shakespeare, even though his knowledge of English was very limited. The result was first performed in 1847 with great success, so it is no surprise that the mercantile opera producers sought after a stake in this audience share.
A libretto was prepared by Michel Carré and Jules Barbier. Having provided the libretto for Charles Gounod’s Faust, they had a proven track record of bringing major literary classics to the opera stage. They used Dumas’ words as a point of departure, but they recognized that enjoyment of the opera meant enjoyment of the music. Thus, an elaborate plot structure could not interfere with the public getting its share of show-stopping arias and mass spectacle. The resulting libretto was thus closer to Ducis’ bare-bones distillation than it was to Dumas’ broader recognition of Shakespeare’s development of the narrative. Ambroise Thomas received the Carré-Barbier libretto around 1859. The resulting score, in five acts and including the obligatory ballet, was given its first performance on March 9, 1868.
Yesterday’s performance took a single intermission between the second and third acts. This made for a good balance, since the fourth act of the opera is devoted pretty much entirely to Ophelia’s mad scene and drowning. Conductor Jonathan Khuner reworked the score for a reduced instrumental ensemble, the ballet was omitted, and the chorus was reduced to only ten vocalists, half of whom were members of Volti. Fortunately, Khuner’s score included the most distinctive instrumental presence in an aria whose primary accompaniment was for saxophone. The saxophone was invented in 1840, and some of its earliest chamber music dates from 1858. This may well have been its first appearance in an opera score.
In many respects the simplification of Shakespeare’s narrative was well served by the resulting opera libretto. The motive for revenge is much clearer but so, too, are the factors that contribute to Hamlet delaying his efforts. The libretto may lack the psychological depth that we now read into Shakespeare’s text (did Shakespeare’s audience do the same?); but it affords the luxury of listening to the arias as music, rather than as mind-bending soliloquies. Indeed, the weakest portion of the opera may well be when Carré and Barbier chose to incorporate “To be or not to be;” and there was a noticeable drop in Thomas’ confidence when one considers how he crafted his setting.
The stripped-down content of the text also provided Director Aria Umezawa to develop her own perspective on the plot that would interleave with what was suggested by the music. For the most part she honored much of the original Shakespeare spirit, while, at the same time, suggesting that, whether or not Hamlet’s madness was real, there was plenty of mental instability to make the rounds of the rest of the cast. Nevertheless, having the love duet of Hamlet and Ophelia culminate in sexual climax (rather explicitly staged) was more than a bit much. When Ophelia launched into a coloratura cadenza at “the moment,” it was hard not to think of Madeline Kahn singing “Ah! Sweet Mystery of Life” in Young Frankenstein.
From a technical side, however, one had to appreciate the agility that Emma McNairy brought to all of the vocal challenges that Thomas had written into Ophelia’s role. Hamlet’s name may have been on the poster, but everyone on the “bean-counting” side of the original Paris production knew that the audiences would show up to see Ophelia. The score made sure that they were not disappointed, and McNairy made sure that we were not disappointed with the score.
Ironically, this tended to reduce attention to Hamlet himself. Edward Nelson gave a perfectly solid account of the character, and he definitely knew how to shape his voice to all the different emotional dispositions demanded by the role. However, when placed alongside Susanne Mentzer’s blood-curdling presentation of Gertrude and Philip Skinner’s penetrating delivery of the guilt that Claudius suffers, Hamlet comes across as the only clear head in the asylum.
One thing that must definitely be credited to Carré and Barbier was their decision to keep Polonius down to little more than a walk-on. There is a quick suggestion that he had as much to do with the death of King Hamlet as did both Claudius and Gertrude. That turns out to be useful for the plot treatment, because it provides more solid ground for Hamlet’s break with Ophelia.
Perhaps that perspective on the narrative identifies the greatest virtue of the current production. Those on audience side experience one of the most straightforward approaches to plot and motive that one is likely to encounter in any production of Shakespeare’s play. The result may no longer be Shakespeare, but the opera sends us home thinking about new ways to think about Shakespeare.