27 March 2010: Thomas, Hamlet

Opera by Ambroise Thomas, Libretto by Michel Carré and Jules Barbier, based on the play by Shakespeare. Metropolitan Opera HD Broadcast, seen at the West Springfield multiplex. Conducted by Louis Langrée. Production: Patrice Caurier and Moshe Meiser. Ophélie: Marlis Petersen; Gertrude: Jennifer Larmore; Laërte: Toby Spence; Hamlet: Simon Keenlyside; Claudius: James Morris. 3 hrs. 15 mins. including one intermission

In an interview with Renée Fleming at intermission, Simon Keenlyside, the Hamlet in this production, offered a common-sense observation about Thomas’s opera: “It is text-driven, like Shakespeare’s Hamlet, but it is not Shakespeare’s Hamlet.” Truer words were never spoken. Composed in an age when Shakespeare was still in the ascendent, his play, like all his other plays, had by this time become the coinage of common discourse. People could quote Shake­speare without even realizing they were quoting him; his words had seeped into the language and become part of civilized speech. In the same way, Shakespeare’s plots seem to have made their way into contemporary drama and comedy and to have become thoroughly assimilated into the kinds of plays being written and produced for contemporary audiences.

What kind of plays? In a word, melodramas. Thomas’s librettists, Michael Carré and Jules Barbier, have taken the story told by Shakespeare’s play and adapted it to the exigencies of melodramatic action — while at the same time doing those things that all good librettists do to allow the composer to exploit the musical and operatic opportunities it affords. As the opera played out, I couldn’t help thinking of Honoré Daumier’s famous painting, Le Drame, in which we see, in a non-descript room, a corpse on the floor, a woman in long flowing dress in a heightened state of shock and alarm, her hands and arms thrown up to her head, and a third figure, perhaps the murderer, opposite her in a threatening stance: a kind of generic melo­dram­atic situation, distilled to its essence. Carré and Barbier have simplified and changed the story in various ways: there are the beginnings of two Hamlet soliloquies, but essentially there are no soliloquies; Polonius is reduced to a nondescript chancellor who exchanges not a single word with Hamlet, is not murdered by him, and survives to the end of the opera, where, in the burial scene, he draws back the cloth covering Ophelia’s face; Horatio is not much more than a bit part; Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are gone.

Of the characters that remain, it turns out three of them were evidently in cahoots to murder the old king: Claudius worked it out with Gertrude and, yes, with Polonius as well, conspiring together to get rid of the old king. As for the Ghost, he does appear on the battlements and in no uncertain terms tells Hamlet that Claudius killed him and demands vengeance on the treacherous brother; he reappears, as in Shakespeare, in a version of the closet scene, reprimanding Hamlet for his delay; but then, in a wholesale departure from Shakespeare, he reappears once more in the final scene in the cemetery, where he confronts Claudius and (in this production) pinions his arms so that Hamlet, at last, can ram his dagger into Claudius’s mid-section.

Let’s go back a little, to Ophelia and the manner of her death. She has a rip-roaring mad scene, at the end of which she kills herself; none of this Shakespearean drowning in a brook offstage for Thomas. In addition to these notable changes, what makes Thomas’s opera very un-Shakespearean is that the ethos itself of the play has been totally changed. Or, perhaps, just eliminated. The reason there are no soliloquies is that this Hamlet, agonized over his father’s death and then supremely angry, once he discovers that his uncle has murdered that father, does drag his feet a bit, but wastes no time at all — it would be an utter waste of time, in the world of Thomas’s Hamlet — thinking about it. The furthest he gets, in the soliloquy “To be or not to be,” is “ . . . to dream.” Yes? Well, what are the consequences, the possibilities, if you dream? Thomas’s Hamlet doesn’t explore them. It doesn’t occur to him. The players are there, but Hamlet’s only advice to them is, “Wait till I give the signal before you administer the poison” in the dumbshow. And the “advice to the players” scene is not followed by a soliloquy in which Hamlet reflects on the nature of human emotion, the question of belief in acting, the difficulty of verifying guilt in a world of vague and contradictory appearances, and the crediting of the enactment of a clear action in dramatic form as the best way to discover reality, in the form of definitive guilt or innocence. In Thomas’s Hamlet, “The play’s [NOT] the thing!”

So Simon Keenlyside is right, of course. Thomas’s Hamlet is an opera suggested by Shakespeare’s play, is not to be confused with — or compared to — Shakespeare’s play, and must be taken on its own. Taken on its own, it is quite a good opera, with a plot no more ludicrous than that of, say, Simon Bocanegra or Tosca. It is not a poetic plot, it is a prose plot, and the characters are prose characters, given some very nice, rousing music to sing, but very few arias. This is not an aria-opera. It is text-driven, as Keenlyside aptly observes; that is, the text is not an excuse for elaborate, florid singing. It is what pulls the singing together and makes it a part, albeit the showiest part, of the whole opera. This is a dramatic opera, not a lyric opera, in other words. It must be taken for what it is, with no regrets for what it is not. And, given the fact that it has been an entire century since it was performed at the Met, it is high time to give it a full-fledged, first-rate production.

This the Met has done. But not in the usual cast-of-thousands DeMille way. Choruses where they are used are full, but they are not used very much. Significant amounts of stage action are conducted on a bare, or nearly bare, stage. There are a couple of very tall wagons with two adjoining flats representing what seem to be exterior walls, with a door built into one of them (a door that is never used). It has no distinguishable architectural features; it is generic European domestic architecture, painted a faded green and bearing some evidence of brickwork. There is an act curtain, painted with black and off-white streaks (on a huge scale; the Met’s proscenium is, after all, a cavernous opening). At the beginning, with the act curtain still down, Gertrude (Jennifer Larmore) enters at the bottom of the stage from the right. Close-up cameras show her to be extremely agitated and upset, just barely able to control herself; we see her gasping and struggling. She arrives at center stage and turns up, at which point the act curtain rises on an almost completely dark stage. From upstage, walking down, are phalanxes of chorus, dressed in rather somber formal attire. They sing of celebration. The words are triumphal words, but irony hangs extremely heavy over it all. As they move downstage, with not a hint of a smile on their faces, they divide in two at the center; Getrude walks upstage between them, and joins Claudius, then turns and walks along with him down center again. It is still somber, gloomy, and very uncelebratory. Gertrude’s costume is an elegant but somewhat overdone crimson, with an enormous hoop skirt. Claudius, wearing a crown, is dressed in dark formal wear and wearing an armored breastplate in bronze. At the bottom of the stage Gertrude kneels and is crowned with the crown Claudius has carried in one hand. She rises, they turn and walk upstage, disappearing into the darkness. But before they do, Gertrude stops and returns a step or two. “Where is Hamlet?” she sings.

Where, indeed? We almost never, with two exceptions, see Hamlet among more than one or two other characters, let alone among the rest of the Danish court. Something is rotten in the state of Denmark, we feel sure, but we would never know it by anything that Claudius does, or says. He is what’s rotten. This is domestic melodrama, the scenes are intimate duos and trios, and the closest we come to knowing there are political problems afoot is when Laertes shows up to interrupt Hamlet and Ophelia and say goodbye, explaining that he has to go off and fight the Norwegians. (No Parisian high life for him.)

The two exceptions occur at the climax of Act II and again in the last scene of the opera. Act II shows us the arrival of the players and the plan to present “The Murder of Gonzago.” This leads directly to the banquet, which is a non-banquet because there is no food, only wine, on the table, and the entertainment proceeds immediately. This is actually a brilliantly directed scene. The actors are pantomimists. A tall black actor is rouged and made up to look like the player queen, though he is clearly male, and he/she tempts an absurdly uxuorious, fawning king to come to her, giving the “brother” scope to pour a bottle of poison into a wine cup and, as the king falls asleep in his queen’s arms, to pour the lethal drink into his open mouth. Claudius becomes extremely upset at this graphic reenactment of his murder of the old king, and the scene breaks up in pandemonium, Hamlet practically drowning himself with a pitcher of wine that pours forth thick gobbets of blood. He relieves Claudius of his crown, and the curtain comes down in great confusion.

One might have thought this would have put Claudius onto Hamlet as being in the know about his murder of Hamlet’s father; but there’s no mention of the possibility of getting rid of Hamlet, sending him to England, or any such thing; we only see Claudius upset with him and calmed down by Polonius. What this scene (the opening scene of Act III) accomplishes, as far as the “driving” plot is concerned, is that Hamlet discovers that Polonius was an accomplice in the murder. But the action moves on: We must see Hamlet further upset Ophelia, despite Gertrude’s attempt to marry the two of them then and there. Clearly, if Claudius makes some effort to drive Hamlet away, Hamlet might not be around to aggravate Ophelia’s instability and to confront his mother. Or so it seems.

A version of the closet scene now ensues. Hamlet accuses Gertrude of her complicity in the murder, and she can say nothing in answer to that. We know it’s true. “Look thou on this picture, and on this,” Hamlet says, drawing for once on Shakespeare’s dialogue. (Well, to be fair, there was another, earlier one: “Frailty, thy name is woman.”) Well, there turns out to be only one picture; it is of course of Claudius, and it comes in for a good bit of trashing by Hamlet, who finally puts his foot through it. Unsubtle stuff, but we are used to unsubtlety by now. The ghost appears, to chide Hamlet for his inaction; Gertrude can’t see it — and neither can we. For long moments I thought the directors were pulling that old late eighteenth-century trick, tried out by John Phillip Kemble, of omitting the ghost from the scene and simply having an off-stage voice stand in for him. But then, after Hamlet and Gertrude have gone off, the Ghost comes on and quickly follows them off.

A moment about the Ghost. He is an old man with long flowing hair, wearing a white gown that drapes almost randomly across his body and leaves much of his chest bare. The idea for the costume must have come from traditional images of the grim reaper. In the first scene, on the battlements, he carries his old sword, incongruously, but in subsequent scenes he has thoughtlessly left it behind. He wears this same costume throughout, even when he unexpectedly turns up at the cemetery; of course, that last trip would have been his shortest, and it is his most corporeal as well, for that matter (see below).

That brings me to the last scene of the opera, the second of the two exceptions mentioned above. Two grave diggers pull assorted boards up from the stage floor, revealing a trap, into which they climb and begin shoveling token amounts of dirt from its nether regions up onto the stage floor. No jokes here, however. Do they know who is being buried in this grave? One of them did know, but has forgotten. One unearths a skull and throws it up onto the stage, just downstage of the trap, where we will be sure to see it. Hamlet comes in, as the diggers leave, finds the skull, and casually throws it back into the grave, with no comment! No Horatio here, and no Yorick, alas, either; and no reflection on mortality on Hamlet’s part. That has already been done, if briefly, by the grave diggers. Instead, who comes but Laertes, who does know who’s being buried here, and wants revenge on Hamlet as a result. Hamlet has a kind of “Who, me?” response, being innocent of the knowledge. Laertes draws on Hamlet, and they fight with daggers, briefly but conclusively.

Laertes is killed, and falls dead. Hamlet is wounded, but carries on, as the procession makes its way in, headed by two pall bearers carrying aloft the body of Ophelia, covered in white. We are five minutes away, at most, from the fall of the curtain: time enough for the Ghost to enter, swordless but fiercely determined, to upbraid Hamlet for his negligence, and to stalk over to the hapless Claudius, who is more chagrined than startled, and to pinion his arms and demand that Hamlet finish what he started earlier, when, standing over the remorseful Claudius kneeling in prayer, he almost dispatched him then and there, but paused, reflecting that it would be better to kill him while he was “on his throne”! (Not — notice! — when he is in bed with Gertrude! A little bit of censorship there, for modern sensibilities?) Claudius dies; Gertrude is left to heaven; Hamlet dies, speechless; and the curtain falls.

This is very expeditious carrying out of the main features and characteristics of the opera, as crafted by two librettists who evidently knew what they were about and had the freedom to tailor Shakespeare’s very long, complex play to a serviceable length and shape, eliminating superfluous characters and intrusive ideas and so opening up more space for simpler musical confrontations. They end up with a vehicle, if not exactly sleek, at least workmanlike in what it allowed Thomas to concentrate on. What he concentrated on were two things at once: prov­iding a star vehicle of the first order for a baritone of great prowess and endurance (Simon Keenlyside is an ideal interpreter of the role), at the same time embedding that singer-actor in a tragic action that moves in a clear, straightforward way while at the same time giving him lots of opportunity to be one-on-one and one-on-two with his three most prominent opposite char­ac­ters: Gertrude, Ophelia, and Claudius. (Evidently, being one-on-one, as it were, with his friend Horatio, doesn’t appeal to Thomas; this is not Bizet’s Les Pécheurs.)

Given the musical exigencies of these ones and twos, much else had to be eliminated or pared way down. The librettists of course understood this, and so they decimated the role of Horatio, cut out R & G, forgot about Osric, discarded the ideational and philosophical undercarriage of the play, and made it into melodrama that simultaneously would make for remarkably good opera. Given this goal, they succeeded brilliantly.

Were they, and the composer they so diligently served, hoping for the kind of long-term life for their creation that other librettists and composers, earlier and later, managed to achieve? Or were they just defying the odds that no satisfactory opera could be made from Shakespeare’s Hamlet? Is this opera in the same class with Lucia di Lammermoor, Norma, Tosca, Aïda, etc.? We might be quick to answer, “No.” But wait: all of the operas just named have deathless heroines (all of whom die a tragic death) and are better at their work than Thomas’s Ophélie, who is not the central character (inexplicably, the directors of this production make her seem to die once, then revive and die for good, but her mad scene is overdone and not convincing — granted, she came in at the last minute for an ailing Natalie Dessay and did wonderfully on almost no rehearsal). Is that the reason?

I believe there is more to it than this, more to it even than the fact that Thomas has written a dramatic, not a lyric, opera. The real reason is, I believe, that if you are going to do a gut job on a famously ideational play such as Hamlet, you have to put something else in its place. Did Thomas do that? What is it that makes this opera hang together, what gives it the wholeness, the integrity, the character of being all of one piece? I’ll have to think about this more, but right now it appears to me that Thomas’s music, complex, full of emotion, dynamic, much expressive of character, and full of variety as it is, does not serve an action that has some really coherent meaning at its center. Well, for that matter, what’s at the center of Madama Butterfly? Surely we come away from that opera with more than the mere conviction that Pinkerton is a perfect sonofabitch. If that’s all we feel, we have missed much. We should feel a sense of pity for hapless innocence, a deep sympathy over measureless loss, and a sense of being the beneficiaries of great artistic beauty, even while we reflect on the clash of two cultures, each advantageous in its own way, but each insufficient to compensate for the harsh realities of human life or the deep inadequacies of the human heart. Something like that.

Well, what do we feel by the end of Thomas’s Hamlet? Do we sympathize for Thomas’s deeply wounded but strangely superficial Hamlet? Or do we just conclude that there are some really evil people out there, in positions of power and influence, and for reasons best known to themselves they can do an awful lot of damage, cause a lot of heartache, and end up being blown up by their own bomb? There needs no ghost come from the grave to tell us this, of course; and so if you’re going to construct an opera around that idea, it needs to be carried out with something better than mere workmanlike efficiency. There has to be something new, or deep, about the action of the plot. There has to be some stylistic uncommonness, something memorably different; something compelling. Judged by such standards — admittedly high — Thomas’s opera does not, I think, quite measure up. It is certainly good enough to justify the expenditure of a Saturday afternoon as a member of its audience; good enough to justify the much greater expenditure of the hundreds of thousands of dollars required to mount this opera on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera; good enough to add in the marvelous extra dimension of simultaneous HD broadcast on a global scale. But not, I think, good enough to earn a secure place in the repertoire. Something is missing there, I submit. Daumier is a wonderful, penetrating satirist in his own way; in the hands of Daumier, humdrum melodrama (the ur-drama of excess) takes on a kind of timeless quality, grows above and beyond and out of itself, makes mere caricature take on new meaning. I think what I’m talking about is something called art. Hard to define, but you know it when you see it.


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An American Playgoer at Home by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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