Thursday 1 February 2018

Vive Hamlet! Ambroise Thomas' masterpiece rehabilitated

Vive Hamlet! Ambroise Thomas' masterpiece rehabilitated

Which were OPERA2DAY’s motivations for staging Hamlet? Which approach uses OPERA2DAY to produce this grand opéra? What is the story told by the production? Artistic director Serge van Veggel explains the coming about of the new production of Hamlet, almost 100 years after the opera was staged in The Hague for the last time.

We have chosen Hamlet because we think in this opera different lines wonderfully converge. For years we, as an opera company based in The Hague, feel heir to the companies that presented French operas in The Hague for about three centuries. With La troupe d’Orphée we paid tribute to the travelling opera troupes calling in at the city. With Médée we tried to reinvent the genre of opéra comique, a speciality of the The Hague Comédie Française. However, Médée was never before staged in The Hague. It was time to produce an opera from the Théâtre Français’ repertoire. Their legacy is stored in the The Hague municipal archives: over six hundred boxes containing scores, orchestral music and thousands of fliers. A treasure trove.

The choice of Hamlet ensued from our last production: Dr. Miracle’s last illusion. In this pasticcio performance with parts from different operas we performed music from around 1900 for the first time in a historically informed way. Together with the New European Ensemble we concluded that we wanted to produce an entire show in this way. 

In Dr. Miracle we played Ophélie’s madness aria from Hamlet. It was a highlight of the performance, which made us wonder whether we would be able to stage the other parts of the work as well.

The fact that Hamlet is based on perhaps the best-known play in the world also made our mouths water, of course. Personally, the moment that I, at 17, attended a theatrical performance of Hamlet, directed by Dirk Tanghe, was when I realised that my path had to lead to the theatre, although unclear as yet in which capacity. A month later I saw La Traviata. It jolted me into the direction of the genre I was introduced to in this performance: opera. I did not want to lose the strong impression of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. After having seen the play I waited more than twenty years before I was ready to listen to the opera version by Ambroise Thomas. I only knew individual scenes. When I listened to the complete opera two years ago, it was love at first sight. My partners in crime – musical director Hernán Schwartzman, general director Alice Gubler and Emlyn Stam of the New European Ensemble – also fell for Hamlet.

Hamlet the opera has a doubtful reputation because the play’s plot was adapted. But when I got to know the opera I could only find it does justice to the essence of the story. In opera it is impossible to follow the text word for word. Singing words simply takes more time than saying them. And some elements of the story and the text can be expressed instrumentally. Thomas and his librettists managed to capture the play’s spirit. Literally, too: the ghost scene is brilliant! Of course, scenes and characters were left out: no Rosencrantz or Guildenstern, no Polonius behind a tapestry, no Fortinbras, who, by the way, in theatrical performances also stays in Norway most of the time. But the essence of Shakespeare’s play is maintained. And note how masterly Ophélie’s part has been worked out. The opera could easily have borne her name.

Only the end took a lot of thought. Not with us but also with Thomas himself. His librettists Barbier and Carré wrote an end in which Hamlet, different from in the play, does not die. After Ophélie’s death and his revenge by murder he stays alive, heartbroken. He concludes: “my soul is in the grave, and I am king", after which the final chorus begins to sing “Vive Hamlet”. This alteration was unthinkable for the London première. This is why Thomas composed another end for England. Hamlet murders the king and says: “my task is accomplished, Ophélie, I die with you". And then he kills himself. Which end should we choose? This question took a while to decide on.

The dream was born and then reality kicked in. We would never be able to produce the work as it was meant. Hamlet is a grand opéra which needs grandes troupes. It wants an orchestra of sixty musicians, a choir of the same size, a complete corps de ballet and wind bands on as well as behind stage. This is an immense challenge, even to the largest opera companies. But the score and the libretto showed us an alternative route. The opera scenes which tell the key parts of the story - Hamlet in confrontation with his opposites – are quite intimate. Those parts formed an excellent basis for our production. In the opera, the choir does not represent – as in many other operas – the people against the protagonists. The choristers are the members of the palace court. The soloists, too, are part of this court. This gave us the idea to have the chorus sung by the soloists. Thus we needed an ensemble of eleven singers and one actor. Immediately we were confident a choir of this size could make an impact; Mozart succeeded in majestically ending acts in several of his operas with ensembles of only six singers. Moreover, in Dr. Miracle we discovered how the medium-sized New European Ensemble sounded symphonically. Daniël Hamburger proved to be a very good arranger, able to conjure up the sound of the original from the ensemble. We asked him to transpose the orchestral part of Hamlet to fifteen musicians.

When we discovered the Théâtre Français also played with fewer musicians and made cuts (the overture!) we were pleasantly surprised. In order to have the opera still make an impression of grandeur, we decided to keep the wind bands on and behind the stage. To this end, we started a participation programme for wind players throughout the country.

In its original form Hamlet the opera lasts three and a half hours, mainly because of the conventions of the grand opéra. For Paris Thomas had to compose an extensive ballet. However, the music for the ballet clashes with the rest of the work. We wanted to concentrate on the development in Hamlet’s mind and less on pomp and circumstance. Therefore we chose a focus and shortened the piece. The ballet and various intermezzi were deleted. And we increasingly concentrated on the story we wanted to tell.

Hamlet is an intriguing story. Hamlet’s beloved father dies and within two months his mother marries his uncle Claudius. Hamlet cannot make sense of this. His father’s ghost appears to him and says he has been killed by Claudius.  From then on Hamlet’s path is set. He becomes introverted. Is it true what the ghost told him? He has to find out. Affected by his father’s commanding look he only thinks of revenge, makes plans, acts the fool, is seen as mad, is driven mad by his hesitant behaviour and questions his observations. He increasingly secludes himself off, from his own soul and from his beloved Ophélie. Exactly this leads to the destruction of his world. After his father, he also loses Ophélie.

In our version, we focus on Hamlet’s development and inner feelings. We want the audience to empathise with him.  Has the old king really been murdered? Our cuts enabled us to eliminate all clues that prove that Hamlet’s father was poisoned by Claudius. In the mis-en-scène, we want to show how the physical reality of Hamlet’s life and his mental experiences diverge more and more. He increasingly lives inside his head. Are the things real or are they not? Dream or reality? To be or not to be? That is the question in this production, too.

At last, we had just one other choice to make: which version of the end did we want to use? We pondered over this the longest. Eventually we chose to combine the two versions. Technically this means that you will see the London end, but after Hamlet’s last sentence – “my task is accomplished, Ophélie, I die with you” – the Paris final chorus sings: “Vive Hamlet!” Hamlet has to choose. Between “to be or not to be”.

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