Notes and Editorial Reviews
Hampson's Hamlet is full of subtle shadings of tone and color, and the recitatives are invested with life and character -- an excellent performance that shows Thomas is not just an operatic lightweight.
Variously described as a "powerful, dark-hued masterpiece" and as, dramatically, a travesty with some musical high spots amid a sea of commonplace sentimentalities, Thomas's Hamlet seems to demand being looked at afresh. Forget Shakespeare if you can (although much of his text is employed) for, after all, he was already making his own version of an old story, and do not repine at the absence of Rosencrantz, Guildenstern or Fortinbras, nor that Polonius's part is reduced to a mere eight bars; and though the contrived happy ending, with Hamlet being proclaimed king, takes some swallowing, responsibility for this lies not with Thomas but with the French audiences of the 1860s, whose bourgeois tastes, unable to take stronger meat, had already forced his librettists Carre and Barbier (in Gounod's Faust and Thomas's Mignon) to emasculate Goethe. For the Covent Garden production of Hamlet a year after the Paris premiere, the ending was changed as a sop to British sensibilities, and Hamlet kills himself. Richard Bonynge, in his version on Decca, tries to effect a rapprochement with Shakespeare and has Hamlet fatally wounded at the very start of the duel. The present recording goes back to Thomas's original but also includes the Covent Garden ending in an appendix, to which is also banished the musically shallow and banal ballet (dramatically irrelevant) on which Parisian audiences insisted. An extra point of interest in this set is the inclusion (also in an appendix) of a duet between Claudius and Gertrude which has only recently been discovered in the Bibliotheque National and which has not previously been recorded. In any case, this recording—over three hours of it—is more complete than the Decca issue, in which there were a number of small cuts.
So, viewing the work objectively, what impression does it make? Somewhat to my surprise in view of JBS's murmurs about "triviality", I find myself inclining more to the first view quoted above of the opera. There are indeed undistinguished sections, where Thomas lapses into the conventional and pretty-pretty—and lead-ins to arias are too often like ballet-dancers' "take up position" (though the introduction to "To be or not to be" is almost Verdian)—but against this must be set the tense scene of the ghost's appearance, Hamlet's highly dramatic confrontation of Gertrude (with a further manifestation by the ghost), and such arias as Claudius's prayer for forgiveness and Hamlet's "Comme une pale fleur". Thomas's orchestration is colourful and full of felicities (and I'm not merely thinking of his employment of a saxophone), with highly effective use of the trombones, and the Intermezzo to Act 4, a clarinet solo, is singularly lovely.
This good impression owes much to the excellent performance here. Almeida secures the utmost in commitment from the LPO—the initial coronation march has tremendous impact—(though occasionally, as in Act 1, the orchestra is allowed to outbalance the singers) and the splendidly firm-voiced and tonally sensitive Ambrosian Singers; and the casting is admirable, with not a single weakness. The principals sound younger, and therefore more plausible, than in the Bonynge set. Anderson, with her seductive voice and sparkling technique, presents a more touching and vulnerable Ophelia, and manages even to make the protracted mad scene that occupies all of Act 3 something more than the mere display-piece for prima donnas and canary-fanciers it has long been considered. (Her Ballad that this contains and which is movingly taken up by the wordless chorus bears a close resemblance to the first movement of Grieg's Op. 63, and proves to have been suggested to Thomas by his Scandinavian first Ophelia, Christine Nilsson.) Hampson's Hamlet is full of subtle shadings of tone and colour, and the recitatives (his as well as the others') are invested with life and character in a way that leaves the Bonynge set standing. Ramey brings weight (if perhaps not ideal steadiness) to his portrayal of Claudius, Denyce Graves has a secure facility as Gertrude, and in the minor parts, all of which are well taken, one distinct advantage over the earlier set is the fine First Gravedigger of Thierry Felix instead of his dreadfully wobbly predecessor. The overall standard of the French is notably superior. My one criticism is that, as compared with John Tomlinson's awe-inspiring ghost, set in a hollow acoustic, Courtis here is given insufficient presence, so that his all-important narration fails to make its proper effect. In sum, however, I recommend listeners to give Thomas another chance and not just to dismiss him as an operatic lightweight.
-- Gramophone [1/1994]
Review of original release