Monday 20 January 2014

Thomas - Hamlet

Ambroise Thomas - Hamlet

La Monnaie - De Munt, Brussels 2013

Marc Minkowski, Olivier Py, Vincent Le Texier, Sylvie Brunet-Grupposo, Stéphane Degout, Till Fechner, Lenneke Ruiten, Rémy Mathieu, Henk Neven, Gijs Van der Linden, Jérôme Varnier

France TV Culturebox, La Monnaie - Internet Streaming

It's fairly evident that Ambroise Thomas's opera version of Shakespeare's 'Hamlet' is far from faithful to the original. As I've noted myself elsewhere, while it starts out with good intentions it quite literally loses the plot half-way through and becomes more a case of 'Scenes inspired by Shakespeare's Hamlet'. That's not necessarily a bad thing, and indeed if there were any way of conveying the essence of 'Hamlet' as music theatre, it's probably best achieved in the style of a 5-Act Grand Opera. Much depends however on the stage direction being strong enough to make up for the liberties Barbier and Carré take with the plot and characterisation. Directed by Oliver Py, La Monnaie's production takes a few liberties itself but manages nonetheless to make a strong case for the work.

Shakespeare purists might balk at the idea, but for Hamlet to fit into a grand opera template, it requires considerable pruning and some reordering of events. There's no ghostly apparition on the battlement of Elsinor castle at the opening here, for example. That regular feature of the grand opera tradition is saved to be employed for effect later when Hamlet himself witnesses it in the second scene of Act I. Before that we have a huge joyous celebration with chorus for the wedding of Claudius to Gertrude, a scene that is in marked contrast with Hamlet's gloomy disposition and his speech about the inconstancy of women. We also have a love scene between Hamlet and Ophelia, and a display of friendship between Hamlet and Laertes. Then we finally get the big scene where Hamlet learns from the ghost of his dead father of the deed most foul committed by his brother.

That's a great way to compositionally reorder the scenes for an opera, introducing all the characters, displaying a wide variety of emotions with arias and duets in a standard series of numbers and set-pieces, achieving the necessary impact without straying too far away from the intentions of the drama (even if the 19th century French language isn't quite as rich as Shakespeare's Elizabethan verse). It's particularly effective in Oliver Py's staging of the work (the 2013 revival of the production directed here by Andreas Zimmermann). Py's regular collaborator, set and costume designer Pierre-André Weitz, provides an ingenious subterranean labyrinthine construction of revolving and shifting staircases that resembles something out of an MC Escher puzzle, an impossible architecture of dark recesses that reflect the mindset of the characters.

All the characters are a mass of neuroses here, not just Hamlet - although is always remains possible that everything we see and how it plays out is just a reflection of Hamlet's disturbed mind. When we first encounter him in this production it's descending a staircase while cutting lacerations into his own chest and arms. Deeply affected by the death of his father, he's prepared to see conspiracy everywhere in the world, in the murder of his father. Even Ophelia and his mother's attempts to lighten his disposition are met with suspicion and mistrust. Hamlet however, particularly in this production, seems to be marked by a sense of futility to change events. His direction of the drama of the travelling players can be seen in this light, either an attempt to make the world and events conform to his dark personal view or as an indirect and impotent revolt against it.

Perhaps reflecting the state of Hamlet's troubled mind, Claudius and Gertrude are first seen stumbling down the same staircase as Hamlet, unsure of their footing. During the apparition of the ghost of his father, Claudius stumbles onto the stage in a drunken stupor, Gertrude laughs wantonly and Ophelia appears surrounded by shirtless men wearing masks who also torment her (or seduce her) during her death scene. There's plenty of room for such ambiguities in Hamlet, and Py makes the most of them without going too far overboard. Well, not often anyway. There are certainly some Freudian issues that can be played upon in the play, but some might find an entirely naked Hamlet being bathed by his mother before wrestling her to the ground and then dunking her under the water a little bit pointless.

As conventional as the arrangements often are (barring the unusual employment of a saxophone solo in the travelling players scene), the subject is nonetheless well handled by Ambroise Thomas, who matches the music and the numbers with the tone of the drama. As if the saxophone is some kind of indication however, things start to go a little wayward following the reenactment of Claudius' crime in 'The Murder of Gonzago'. It's as if after everything has been brought out into the open and laid bare the characters have nothing more to do but recoil at the horror of it all. Any further progression of the plot kind of grinds to a halt while the subsequent numbers are played out in the final acts. There's a disproportionate amount of time given over for example to Ophelia's mad scene, evidently to fill-out the soprano role, but also to satisfy the French mania of the period for this character.

Stéphane Degout has some uncommon challenges when singing the role of Hamlet, including singing a major aria entirely naked, but he copes admirably. Degout is making Hamlet very much his own much the same way that he is with Pelléas, singing these key French baritone roles with the required delicate lyric romanticism underpinned with a commanding strength of purpose. The same could be said about Vincent Le Texier's command of key bass roles in the French repertoire, bringing depth and character to Claudius here in the same way that he tackles Golaud in Pelléas et Mélisande. Sylvie Brunet-Grupposo is not so strong, a little wobbly in places, but she has a good voice and likewise copes well with some of the challenges of the staging, like having her head shoved into bathwater.

Key to the success of the production as a whole however, considering the emphasis that her character has in this version of Shakespeare's work, is the wonderful performance from Dutch soprano Lenneke Ruiten as Ophelia. Her French enunciation is excellent, her delivery flowing, her high notes expressive and well pitched. Equally important is the conducting of Marc Minkowski which brings a dramatic consistency to the work. This is perhaps achieved with some judicious cuts to the ballets and other excesses (I'm not familiar with the uncut version of the work), but it helps that there are no obvious divisions between the acts, the drama allowed to flow from scene to scene through the fine set designs, with the instrumental interludes used to connect and retain the mood.

Recorded at La Monnaie-De Munt on the 13th and 17th December 2013, Hamlet can be viewed for a limited time via on-line streaming from France Television's Culturebox site or through the La Monnaie streaming service. There are no English subtitles available on any of these platforms, but there are also no location restrictions on viewing.