Ambroise Thomas's Hamlet (2004)



Hamlet played by Simon Keenlyside
Directed by Toni Bargallo


When I began this journey I knew that it would be a learning experience and not just because I'd essentially be seeing the same story, over, and over, and over again. I knew there would adaptations I would end up watching and although there are a couple that I'm saving until I'm really in the mood, last night I sat through Ambroise Thomas's opera adaptation as it appeared at Covent Garden.

Firstly some qualifications:

(a) I don't love opera singing so ...
(b) I don't love opera

Possibly because

(c) I haven't seen a whole opera before.

Without fixating on this fact, I do want to also note that in Pretty Woman when Richard Gere tells Julia Roberts that there are two types of people those who love opera from the beginning and those who learn to appreciate it, he misses out a third group - people who haven't had time to do either because they've been busy with everything else. I don't feel bad about it, and I don't think I'm too old and if anyone wants to write in with magnum opuses and classics that I really should hear, feel free although it's probably best if I just promise to watch the inevitable broadcast from Glyndebourne on BBC Four at Christmas. Even though I was watching alone and on the smallish screen, I tried to keep with the experience though, clapping with the audience when cued and having a real toilet and coffee break at the interval (or change of dvds), and although I didn't have anyone to complain to about the seating arrangements or the price of the tickets, I did check my email.

All of which hopefully explains is why at no point in the next few paragraphs will I be even attempting to provide a review of the quality of the performance because I won't want to suggest any pretensions that I know what I'm talking about. Because I don't. All I'll say in the outset is I was really impressed at the players/singers ability to present acting performances with such range whilst also doing that with their lungs. Natalie Dessay is certainly one of the best Ophelia's I've seen in any media, absolutely heartbreaking in the passage when she descends into madness, alone and commanding the stage for reasons which will become clear. Simon Keenlyside's brooding Hamlet also impressed.

Inevitably, my interest lies in how the story has been adapted for another media, still staged and yet with a musical form of expression. Perhaps most surprising where the narrative changes introduced by Thomas to accommodate the requirements of opera. My rudimentary understanding that for musical purposes there needs to be bass, baritone, mezzo-soprano and soprano voices. In this version that means Claudius, Hamlet, Gertrude and Ophelia. As per Shakespeare, Laertes disappears very early on, but more striking Polonius is largely jettisoned in all but for one scene, which has an obvious knock on effect later. Unsurprisingly, Fortinbras isn't mentioned either.

Douglas Adams once said that if were to make a film of The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy, rather than repeating the scenes from the radio series, books and television version he would feature all of the moments in between instead. Startlingly that's what happens here. The story actually begins with a chorus singing out celebration for the re-coronation of Gertrude, but the subdued lighting signals that all is not well. There is then a rather touching scene between Hamlet and Ophelia which means unlike the play we have a glimpse of the couple before it all goes bad. Then, Laertes passes through on his way abroad to entrust Ophelia's safety in Hamlet's hands - this is something of a change because it turns his sisters later madness into a betrayal of that trust.

The narrative of the original play doesn't begin until a full half hour into the performance and even then its done rather subliminally, with the Horatio figure dashing through revelry to reveal the ghostly vision from the battlements. Here are some of the highlights of the differences: when Hamlet Snr does inevitably appear, he tells Hamlet that he must avenge his death before revealing who the killer will the and the plot is the ghost's with the son fulfilling the dying wish of the father. As with the play, Hamlet madness becomes reported rather than scene, although unlike Shakepeare's account, its up to Ophelia to signal the change. One of the major changes in this version is that Ophelia's part is beefed up considerably to the extent that she's almost an equal - indeed she speaks to the audience as much as Hamlet and to an extent our sympathies lie with her as she is unable to comprehend his malady and why she is spurning him. Claudius and Gertrude question Hamlet on this

Then, given the stripped down nature of this version of the story and because there obviously needs to be a sub-finale (or whatever), the close of the first act is taken up with The Mousetrap, although Hamlet has ordered the presence of the players rather than their haphazard appearance in the play. This is the first section that has real fidelity with the 'original' with the bit of business between Hamlet and Ophelia largely intact. The only real change is that Hamlet signals his madness by covering himself symbolically with blood when Claudius reveals his annoyance at the events depicted in the play, unexpectedly pushing the crowd gathered for the player's performance against himself rather than his step father.

Beginning of Act II and Hamlet is wondering why his plan hasn't worked and drops into 'To Be Or Not To Be' (more on which later). By this time I'm wondering exactly how Ophelia's madness will be introduced without the death of Polonius, just as Polonius arrives on stage (with Hamlet listening far away) to note that he was in on the plot all along (something hinted at in the opening act). But this is Polonius's only appearance, and although the Hamlet/Gertrude scene is again bizarrely almost complete it ends with Hamlet stalking off. What actually leads Ophelia to madness is Hamlet spurning her love and empahsising that she should instead 'retire to a convent' ('Get thee to a nunnery'). This is probably the best moment in the performance as Dessay commands the stage, huge vases and a couch being her only support. The audience thought she was good too, clapping for two minutes whilst she lay on the floor, still totally in character, unable to acknowledge.

And then, oddly, the grave diggers arrive, rip some floorboards up from the stage, climb into the hole and dig out some soil. No Yorrick, although Hamlet and Laertes skulk in randomly to wonder who will be buried, there's a altercation and Hamlet is stabbed. The funeral procession answers their question. Then the ghost of Hamlet Snr makes final surprise visit to remind Hamlet of his 'mission' to kill Claudius (something he'd singularly failed to do earlier in the play when he had the chance) he stabs his stepfather, there's a crescendo and the curtain falls. Note that Gertrude survives and the mortality of the young Dane is by no means certain. And I was disappointed because I was looking forward to singing and swords.

I know that I haven't completely captured the experience of seeing a story so familiar rewritten in this way. I loved that Ophelia is more prominent here, probably so that a production could attract a first class soprano and her relationship with Hamlet has even more consistency than in Shakespeare's version. Arguably both are valid, although the lack of Polonius does mean that the impact of one of the themes of the story, that of the tragic loss of a parent and the hopeless repercussions is reduced. Its interesting too that because Hamlet potentially lives and is hailed as King it becomes even more of a revenger's tragedy than a study of real madness (although neatly the opera, like Shakespeare, doesn't have a definite answer to that). Apparently though a different version of the play was premiered after Thomas's death in which Hamlet committed suicide before the shows end, which doesn't seem like the correct end either.

The biggest change is obviously in language. The opera itself is in French and I watched it with translation. Having given up on French after only just scraping through even though I was in set four at school I only have a smattering picked up through osmosis from years of watching French movies. Rely on the subtitles is obviously madness and through, somehow you'd could tell that much of the real poetry had been lost somehow. Early on Horatio exclaims 'My legs have given way' and Hamlet's advice to Ophelia 'Retire to a convent' simply doesn't have the same power. The only soliloquy to survive is inevitably 'To Be Or Not To Be' which in the subtitles became:

To be or not to be
Oh, enigma
To die ... to sleep ...
To sleep
If only I were permitted to break
The bond that ties me to earth
But then what?
What is this unknown land
From which no traveler has yet returned
To be or not to be
Oh, deep enigma
To die ... to sleep ...
(repeat to fade)

Either this is a literal translation in which case huh? Or its simply paraphrasing the French, in which case why not simply use Shakespeare's text? Oh, enigma indeed.

What I learn from this experience is that to an extent in opera, in adapting a narrative it becomes far less important than the noise - its about touching the audience through the sound of music (sorry). Even the staging is spare, with lighting effects and two giant architectural bits of set filling in for every local -- I particularly liked that bright fill light was used when Ophelia was mostly happy, and brutal frost darkness when she'd tipped over the edge. This was repeated in the presentation of the opera on dvd, in which the shifts between scenes and before the production were filled with a visual trip to the orchestra pit and the faces of the people providing the music.

This was not about even attempting to allow the viewer to suspend their disbelief but to provide an overview of the whole experience. To this end, surprisingly, the audience were also shown taking their seats throughout the concert hall, the jewelry rattlers in the stalls being most visible. As the curtain drops on the first half, most of the spectators are clapping, the other half already marching up the isle towards the queue for the toilets or the bar or the ice cream stand. I'm not sure if that's rude or not, but the seven minutes of applause at the end, as the actors/singers bounded on stage probably made up for it.

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