Thursday, 1 February 2018

Ambroise Thomas' Hamlet re-invented in the Hague

Ambroise Thomas: Hamlet - Opera2Day - Quirijn de Lang, Martijn Sanders, Joop Keesmat (Photo  Ben van Duin)
Ambroise Thomas: Hamlet - Opera2Day - Quirijn de Lang, Martijn Sanders, Joop Keesmat (Photo  Ben van Duin)
Ambroise Thomas Hamlet; Quirijn de Lang, Lucie Chartin, Martijn Sanders, Martine Prins, dir: Serge van Veggel, cond:Hernan Schvartzman, New European Ensemble; OPERA2DAY at the Koninklijke Schouwburg, The Hague
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jan 30 2018 Star rating: 4.0
Ambroise Thomas' Shakespearean opera stripped back to its highly expressive bones

Jean-Baptise Faure as Ambroise Thomas' Hamlet in 1877 by Edouard Manet
Jean-Baptise Faure as
Ambroise Thomas' Hamlet in 1877
by Edouard Manet
Ambroise Thomas' 1868 opera Hamlet takes Shakespeare's play and filters it through multiple layers of influences. The libretto is based not directly on Shakespeare but on Alexandre Dumas, père and Paul Meurice's French version of the play (which included a number of changes and 'corrections'), and then the libretto itself re-shapes the material further to create something suitable for a French grand opera, complete with ballet. Ironically, the opera's most famous scene is a completely invented one, the mad scene for Ophélie. The opera focuses on just four characters, Hamlet, Ophélie, Gertrude and Claudius, and the intention was that they would be taken by the classic combination of tenor, soprano, mezzo-soprano and bass/baritone. As a suitable tenor was not available, Thomas re-worked the role for the great baritone Jean-Baptiste Faure, creating a relatively rare opportunity for baritones to play brooding hero.

The opera tends to be revived once per generation, giving the current lyric baritone a chance to sing the role but it is hardly repertoire stuff. The Hague-based Dutch company OPERA2DAY has decided to take the plunge and the company's director Serge van Veggel has come up with a remarkable re-invention of the piece, discovering something far more urgent and intense underneath the padding of Thomas' grand opera. 


I caught up with OPERA2DAY's performance at the Koninklijke Schouwburg in the Hague on 30 January 2018. Conducted by Hernan Schvartzman, Serge van Veggel's production used designs by Herbert Janse and videos by Margo Onnes, lighting by Uri Rapaport and costumes by Mirjam Pater. The opera was performed in a version by Daniel Hamburger for the 16-piece New European Ensemble (artistic director Emlyn Stam) and sung by a cast of just twelve, Quirijn de Lang as Hamlet, Lucie Chartin as Ophélie, Martijn Sanders as Claudius, Martina Prins as Gertrude, plus Jan-Willem Schaafsma, Patrick Pranger, Joop Keesmaat, Yavuz Arman isleker, Georgi Sztojanov, Judith Pranger, Sonja Volten, and Adelaide Rouyer as an ensemble who provided both chorus and shared the smaller roles.

Ambroise Thomas: Hamlet - Opera2Day - Lucie Chartin (Photo  Ben van Duin)
Lucie Chartin  (Photo  Ben van Duin)
Thomas' opera does not take us into Hamlet's mind in quite the way Shakespeare's play does, and Serge van Veggel's solution was to use Shakespeare's own text, spoken (in French) as a voice-over by Jonathan Rouah between the scenes. The combination of text and opera worked surprisingly well, particularly when used over Thomas' instrumental movements. These latter are also one of the most powerful elements of the opera and help to contribute to its remarkable atmosphere. But towards the end of the final act, I thought perhaps that the spoken sections held up the action somewhat.

The opera was cut quite considerably, there was no ballet and other scenes were cut or trimmed. The character of Polonius (a minor one in this opera) was dropped entirely. The result was lithe, focussed and highly dramatic. Not Shakespeare, but something new. The opera exists in two versions, the original expansive grand opera ending with its lieto fine and a more concise tragic one, known as the Covent Garden ending though it is not known if this was used there. In fact, when Nellie Melba sang Ophélie at Covent Garden the evening would usually end after the mad scene. The ending used by Opera2Day was based on Thomas' tragic end but with the choral interjections from the original version.

The production was modern dress, with the main visual element being video. Scenically the opera was quite simple, and centred on the bier of the late King of Denmark. In fact, things started even before the curtain went up as a community chorus and local amateur brass band (the company works with a different group in each location where they are performing the opera), performed the music for Ophélie's funeral but this time adapted for the funeral of Hamlet senior, carrying his bier through the audience members assembled in the foyer. And then once in the theatre this flag-draped bier was at centre stage and that shape stayed there for most of the opera.

Ambroise Thomas: Hamlet - Opera2Day (Photo  Ben van Duin)
Ambroise Thomas: Hamlet - Opera2Day (Photo  Ben van Duin)
Quirijn de Lang's Hamlet was onstage almost continuously, initially slumped in depression against his father's bier as Thomas' prelude played in the orchestra and video images filled the stage. These were filmed by Margo Onnes and throughout the opera, her video of the protagonists of the piece formed a backdrop to the action, sometimes simply a visual record of a remembered scenes and sometimes intense visual details. The effect was to suggest the play of emotions in Hamlet's mind, putting the character at center stage, and helping us to understand the complexity of his actions.

It helped that Quirijn de Lang was such an expressive and intensely dramatic performer. This was not one of those performances which prized beauty of tone above all else, though de Lang sang with a nice flexibility of line and suppleness, but he seemed to prize vivid intensity above all things and this was a Hamlet who we could hear, really suffered. His performance kept you involved from the moment he was on stage to the very end.

Lucie Chartin's Ophélie was a remarkably poised and intense creation, rather brittle at first but entirely comfortable in her coloratura, Lucie Chartin shone in the great showpiece of the mad scene. Again, like Quirijn de Lang she clearly prized expressiveness again simply canary fancying, and gave a remarkably disturbing portrait of the now mad young woman, slitting her wrists. But she did not omit one of the most important elements from the scene, charm; Thomas' music takes a very particular view (rather reductive, it could be argued) of Ophélie and we cannot make it otherwise. Lucie Chartin brought just the right elements of naive charm and wonder to the scene.

Ambroise Thomas: Hamlet - Quirijn de Lang, Martina Prins - Opera2Day (Photo  Ben van Duin)
 Quirijn de Lang, Martina Prins - Opera2Day (Photo  Ben van Duin)
Martijn Sanders was a strong Claudius. He came over as rather a conventional villain in the earler scenes, but when it came to the moment when Claudius is praying in his closet and Hamlet contemplates killing him, Sanders really drew out the power of the music, singing with suave intensity. Martina Prins' Gertrude was troubled from the first time we saw her. Whilst Prins' voice did not always move easily through Thomas' elegant lines, she brought out the innate drama in her final scene Quirijn de Lang's Hamlet.

The remaining singers were all admirably vivid and hard-working, cropping up in a variety of roles as well as creating the chorus, forming a strong backdrop for the protagonists. The scene with the players, with its remarkable saxophone solo in the orchestra, was very vividly mimed, and the short scene with the two grave-diggers (Patrick Pranger and Georgi Sztojanov), here stove-pipe hat Victorians, make a remarkably powerful impact. Jan-Willem Schaafsma sang Laerte, the opera's only major tenor part, not ideally relaxed in tone but with striking vividness.

The opera was played with discreet amplification Arne Bock. This added extra acoustic to the sound, and whilst both voices and instruments were heard with admirable naturalness, it seemed to rebalance them and from my seat in row 12 of the stalls, often favoured the instrument somewhat.

We were always going to lose something, playing Thomas' score with a 15-piece band with just five string players, but under Hernan Schvartzman's direction the remarkable thing was how much was preserved, and how the players made this new lithe version of the score work well.

The style of the performance seemed quite free, with the singers using the music with remarkable expressive freedom. A clue to the performance came from the instrumental contribution where the string portamentos were quite surprising; perfectly in keeping with the music, but a style which is rarely done nowadays. The company has quite an interest in period style, and the choice of Hamlet was partly inspired by the history of the Koninlijke Schouwburg which was an opera house the Theatre Francaise de la Haye until 1919, and where Hamlet was played regularly and the archive of scores and parts still survive. So performances by the company explore elements of how modern singers might relate to period vocal style. There was nothing self conscious about this, but you were aware of the freedom with which the performers felt able to treat the music and this was inspired by the freedom which we know from very early 20th century recordings.

This was the fourth time that I have heard Ambroise Thomas' Hamlet. I first came across it in 1980 at the Buxton Festival directed by Malcolm Fraser with Thomas Allen in the title role, and then in 1995 David McVicar produced it at Opera North with Anthony Michaels Moore, and in 2003 the opera re-appeared at Covent Garden for the first time since 1910 in Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser's production with Simon Keenlyside and Natalie Dessay.

Ambroise Thomas: Hamlet - Quirijn de Lang,  Patrick Pranger, Georgi Sztojanov- Opera2Day (Photo  Ben van Duin)
Ambroise Thomas: Hamlet - Quirijn de Lang,  Patrick Pranger, Georgi Sztojanov- Opera2Day (Photo  Ben van Duin)
This performance could easily have been a creditably sung cut-down version of Ambroise Thomas' grand opera, but it is a testament to the way the company has rethought the entire piece that they have discovered something different, who knew that Thomas' exercise in the grand operatic manner had such remrkably good bones. This was not a performance for those who prize beautiful singing and bel canto technique above all else, but there was indeed plenty of expressive singing and some remarkably intense performances. Despite cuts it was still a long evening, 7.30pm to gone 10.20pm with just one 20 minute interval, but all concerned held our interest with a vividness and sense of real engagement.

I will be writing about this production further, for Opera Now magazine.

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