A colorful, lovingly prepared recording that makes an excellent case for a severely underestimated opera.
A setting of Shakespeare's Hamlet which ends with the ghost of his father proclaiming him king, has understandably not been taken seriously. In Victorian times when Melba sang the role of Ophelia she insisted that the opera should end with Act 4 after the heroine's mad scene. But in the last few years there have been signs of new respect for Thomas. In 1978, a San Diego revival (with Sherrill Milnes, as here, taking the name part) prompted enthusiasm from such respected critics as Martin Bernheimer ("an often exciting, sometimes gripping, always interestingRead more evening of musical theatre"), and two years later reception of the Buxton Festival production was just as appreciative, while in Sydney Richard Bonynge went one further by putting on a production far less likely to offend Shakespeareans. Thomas, well aware of likely British objections to Hamlet's survival, had prepared a version for Covent Garden in which the ghost does not reappear and Hamlet after killing the king then commits suicide. What Bonynge has done is to prepare a conflated text closer to Shakespeare, than either, with Hamlet first wounded by Laertes at the very moment they draw their swords (necessary when Thomas allowed no time for a duel). He hears the ghost's command and kills Claudius in his dying moments, with the Covent Garden version providing the concluding lines: "Ma tâche est accomplie. Ophélie, je meurs avec toil" That is the ending now used on this first complete recording, also with Bonynge in charge.
After hearing this colourful, lovingly prepared recording, I begin to feel that in dramatic essentials Thomas has in fact translated Shakespeare into operatic terms far more effectively than Humphrey Searle did in one of the few other Hamlet settings, with his total devotion to the text but total failure to rise to lyrical heights. Tho 152 mas's prelude may be musically thin for its heavyweight tone of voice, but with his mastery of atmosphere and of orchestral colouring (even a saxophone used most effectively for the mime in the play scene and later in the charming ballet of Act 4) and of gentle, sweet lyricism. One inevitably misses a tenor, for Laertes (or Laerte as he becomes in French) has the only substantial tenor role and he hardly appears in the middle acts, Also with Hamlet a baritone it follows that the role of Ophelia (Ophélie) almost inevitably acquires more prominence. Hamlet himself has some fine solos, but nothing quite to suggest Shakespearean weight (not even "Etre ou ne pas étre" which ends with "perchance to dream""réver peut-étre"), yet Thomas brings off a superb dramatic coup with the most memorable of the hero's solos, his drinking song for the players, which in mad. Berlioz-like excitement Hamlet repeats in brief snatches during the climactic ensemble which ends the play scene (Act 3). Thomas's use of leading motifs is generally simple but effective, as when the ghost returns at the climax of the closet scene with Gertrude to the haunting ostinato which accompanied Hamlet's "Anges du ciel" ("Angels and ministers of grace") in Act 1. The soliloquy "Etre ou ne pas être" is not specially memorable melodically, but the orchestra has an ominous figure in suppot, which made me wonder whether Thomas knew his late Beethoven and the last quartet of all, Op. 135 in F, with its motif labelled "Muss es sein? Es muss sein!" ("Must it be? It must be!"). Musically the Bonynge solution in the final scene means the elimination of some choral comment on the arrival of the ghost (which without violence could have been included) as well as the ghost's comment of satisfaction, "Le crime est expié! Le cloitre attend la mere!" and the proclamation of Hamlet as king. It may seem odd still to have the curtain fall to a happy E major chord, but it is a small price to pay.
It was hard luck on Thomas that his librettists Michel Carré and Jules Barbier based their adaptation on the French version prepared by Dumas père in 1847 which equally had the prince surviving. Otherwise the libretto severely telescopes the vast Shakespearean text, but remains surprisingly faithful to the play.
It is worth noting that Sutherland's French diction is markedly clearer than in 1960, though the set is hardly remarkable for the idiomatic singing of French with no French singers among the principals. Sherrill Milnes, powerfully expressive, singing with total conviction, is yet a rather gruff Hamlet. Here more than in the role of Ophelia, where Sutherland's brilliance and flair still convey girlish abandon, I would have welcomed a younger voice. It would be good to have had Thomas Allen doing this role here. Milnes in his eagerness occasionally verges on the lachrymose which reduces an already reduced character, but it is probably more Thomas's fault than Milnes's that so little of Shakespearean self-doubt is conveyed. The drinking song is splendid together with Hamlet's wild snatches from it in the play scene.
Of the others, Gösta Winbergh as Laertes is vocally the strongest and most characterful, making the most of his few chances with fresh, heroic tone. Barbara Conrad as Gertrude sings richly and convincingly, more so in dramatic than lyrical passages, where a flutter in her mezzo is rathe'r exaggerated by the microphones, so spoiling her lovely Act 2 aria. James Morris as Claudius also has a voice relatively poorly suited to microphone exposure, as was evident in the Muti recording of Cosi fan tulte from Salzburg. Despite the gruffness he remains a stylish singer, here as in Mozart. As Marcellus Keith Lewis contributes what moments of sweetness he can, and John Tomlinson is ominously resonant as the Ghost, limited as he is to extended monotones.
Richard Bonynge is obviously devoted to the piece, and though the chorus and orchestra of the Welsh National Opera have a few moments of rough ensemble, this is a colourfully enjoyable reading, which puts an excellent case for a severely underestimated opera. In Act I the crowd scenes of courtiers, whether on stage or atmospherically in the distance, are what first get the piece off the ground. Despite Thomas's orchestral cunning in the scene with the ghost on the battlements, much of the matter seem thin and Bonynge hardly convinces you otherwise. Where, as ever, he consistently scores, are the later melodic flights and the incidental colour passages, notably the ballet music, which may in principle seem an absurd intrusion in this of all operas, but which in effect provides a delightful preparation for Ophelia's mad scene, which makes up the rest of Act 4. The recording, made in London's Kingsway Hall, is rich, immediate and atmospheric, though the chorus is not always realistically close in the stage picture.
-- Edward Greenfield, Gramophone [7/1984, reviewing the LP release 410-1841DH3] Read less
Works on This Recording
Hamletby Ambroise Thomas Performer:
Joseph Rouleau (Bass),
Dame Joan Sutherland (Soprano),
Sherrill Milnes (Baritone),
James Morris (Bass Baritone),
Barbara Conrad (Mezzo Soprano),
Gösta Winbergh (Tenor),
Philip Gelling (Bass),
Keith Lewis (Tenor),
John Tomlinson (Bass Baritone),
Arwel Huw Morgan (),
Peyo Garazzi (Tenor)
Welsh National Opera Chorus,
Welsh National Opera Orchestra
Period: Romantic Written: 1868; France Date of Recording: 04/1983 Venue: Kingsway Hall, London Length: 171 Minutes 4 Secs. Language: French