Perhaps best known for his opera Mignon (1866), French composer Ambroise Thomas composed his five-act grand opera Hamlet just two years later. While he had composed several successful operas earlier in his career, Mignon and Hamlet were the crowning achievements that paved the way for Thomas to take the position of director of the Paris Conservatoire in 1871. He had studied at the Conservatoire as a student before being appointed as a professor in 1856, and after his appointment as director, he worked to modernize the Conservatoire until his death in 1896.
Prominent French librettists Michel Carré and Jules Barbier collaborated to write the libretti for both Mignon and Hamlet. They also wrote the libretti for the operas Faust (1859) and Roméo et Juliette (1867) composed by Charles Gounod, a well-known contemporary of Thomas, as well as many other Parisian operas. Carré and Barbier based the libretto for Hamlet on the 1847 French adaptation of Shakespeare’s play by Alexandre Dumas père and François Paul Meurice. Dumas was inspired by the stimulating performances of William Abbot’s English theater company at the Odéon in 1827. Audiences were particularly drawn to the acting of Harriet Smithson, entranced by her beauty, natural inflections, and dramatic pantomime, particularly in Ophelia’s mad scene. The popularity of Shakespeare and especially Hamlet in Paris following these performances prompted Dumas to write his new French translation of Hamlet to be produced at his Théâtre Historique. The Dumas-Meurice edition retained several elements of Shakespeare’s prose but removed characters and altered scenes to better adhere to Parisian theatrical conventions of the time. Carré and Barbier made further edits for their libretto as they prepared Shakespeare’s tragedy to be transformed into opera. The creative decisions made by Carré, Barbier, and Thomas sparked a sharp debate in the opera’s reception surrounding the questions of fidelity to Shakespeare’s original ideas and whether it was even possible for Hamlet to be set to music in a way that properly captured Shakespeare’s profound genius.
Despite the mixed reception of Thomas’ Hamlet in the late nineteenth century, the opera presents Shakespeare’s tragic narrative in a captivating sequence of musical tableaux. The scenes throughout the opera highlight the introspective qualities of the characters and the intense drama of their interactions. In Act I, Hamlet and Ophelia share a beautiful duet—“Doute de la lumière”—in which Hamlet, grappling with the grief of his father’s death, assures Ophelia that he does indeed love her: “Doubt the light, Doubt the sun and the day, Doubt heaven and earth, But never doubt my love!” The second tableau of Act I features the ominous arrival of the Ghost of Hamlet’s father, who informs Hamlet that he had been murdered by Claudius and commands Hamlet to avenge his death.
Hamlet seeks to reveal Claudius’ guilt by inviting a thespian troupe to perform The Murder of Gonzago, a pantomime featuring the treacherous poisoning of a king. Before the performance, the actors enjoy wine as Hamlet sings a drinking song, “Ô vin, dissipe la tristesse”—“O wine, dispel the sorrow that weighs heavy on my heart!” A saxophone recitative accompanies the performance of the pantomime, a significant early example of the saxophone’s use in opera. After Adolph Sax (1814-1894) patented his invention of the saxophone in 1846, he secured a position teaching the new saxophone course at the Paris Conservatoire in 1857. Thomas was also teaching at the Conservatoire at the time, meaning he would have known Sax and the saxophone quite well.
In Act III, Hamlet contemplates his vengeance, wondering about the mysteries of death as he delivers his famous “To be or not to be” monologue—“Être ou ne pas être.” Tense emotions fuel the end of the third act. Ophelia faces Hamlet’s painful rejection when he refuses to marry her in the “Get thee to a nunnery” scene, and the Queen faces her remorse as she sings, “Hamlet, ma douleur est immense”—“Hamlet, my grief is immense.”
Act IV features Ophelia’s mad scene, a multi-section coloratura scene featuring cadenzas, trills, and large leaps. She speaks with imaginary friends, asking to join their games and share her flowers and telling them that Hamlet is her husband. She sings a ballad of the water nymph in the lake, and, believing she sees Hamlet approaching, she asks the nymph to hide her in the reeds. In this final section, she alludes to her first-act love duet with Hamlet, “Doute de la lumière,” before she drowns. Ophelia’s mad scene became famous for its virtuosic beauty and tragic portrayal of Ophelia’s madness and death, and conductors of the late nineteenth century often programmed the scene as a stand-alone piece in concerts.
The final act occurs in the cemetery. Hamlet comes across two gravediggers, not realizing that the grave is for Ophelia. Laertes challenges Hamlet to a duel, and the funeral procession passes as they fight. Hamlet kills Laertes and learns that the body is Ophelia’s. In his grief, Hamlet fulfills his final act of revenge by killing Claudius before dying himself beside Ophelia.
Hamlet premiered at the Paris Opéra on March 9, 1868. Thomas wrote Ophelia’s part for the well-known Swedish soprano, Christine Nilsson, who performed her role at the premiere and in several subsequent performances. Since Thomas had not been able to find a suitable tenor to play Hamlet, he transposed the part to suit the renowned baritone, Jean-Baptiste Faure, who took on the lead role at the premiere. The premiere featured Thomas’ original ending, in which the Ghost reappears after Hamlet kills Claudius and declares that Gertrude will go to a cloister and Hamlet will become king. Audiences and critics largely disapproved of this ending as a blatant departure from Shakespeare, and Thomas revised his opera to conclude with Hamlet’s death. Many subsequent performances of Hamlet throughout the late nineteenth century concluded the opera after Ophelia’s mad scene in Act IV, a strategy that completely avoided the controversial ending and placed greater emphasis on Ophelia and the tragedy of her madness and death.
Thomas’ Hamlet arrived in the U.S. in 1872 when the Strakosch Italian Opera Company facilitated its performance in New York. The Strakosch brothers were prominent impresarios in New York, bringing European repertoire and performers to the U.S. and arranging musician tours to cities throughout the nation. They brought Christine Nilsson to New York for the first time in 1870, and two years later, she starred as Ophelia in the first U.S. production of Thomas’ Hamlet, performed in Italian translation at the Academy of Music in March 1872.
The people of Cincinnati first saw Thomas’ Hamlet in the city’s Fourth Opera Festival, in February 1884. A great flood of the Ohio River was plaguing the city, but the musicians carried on with their performances in Music Hall. Electric lights were installed to illuminate Music Hall when the gas lines were shut down, arrangements were made to facilitate the arrival of patrons traveling the flooded streets in carriages to Music Hall, and railroad workers took precautions to ensure visitors from afar could safely travel to Cincinnati to attend the operas.
Colonel George Ward Nichols, President of the College of Music of Cincinnati, had founded the Opera Festivals in 1881 as a fund-raiser for the College of Music and its newly instituted Opera Department. Each year, he collaborated with impresarios and opera companies to bring musicians to Cincinnati. The Fourth Opera Festival held particular importance as it brought Henry Abbey and his opera company to the city. Henry Abbey had won the prestigious appointment as manager for the new Metropolitan Opera House in New York in 1883, and as the company toured for their inaugural season, they performed twelve operas in Italian translation at the two-week Cincinnati Opera Festival. The February 1884 performance of Thomas’ Hamlet was the first time the Metropolitan Opera company performed the opera and the first time the city of Cincinnati experienced the opera. Marcella Sembrich performed as Ophelia and Giuseppe Kaschmann took the role of Hamlet, and the media largely praised the novelty of the opera and the commendable performances of the musicians.
“Hamlet” last night was a success, and altogether a brilliant performance - certainly one of the best presentations so far in the progress of the Festival. It was splendidly mounted, the scenes in all their details met all requirements, and some of them were pictures of beauty and display. The costuming was new, in correct taste, and in the court scenes assumed the appearance of regal splendor. The last scene offered a lovely landscape to the view. The lake stretching out in the distance, its shores lined with umbrageous trees, and the effect of light indicating the break of morning, was one of the most pleasing perspectives ever put on the stage at Music Hall.
Cincinnati Commercial Gazette, 22 February 1884, pg. 3
Despite the prestige of the singers and the popularity of the performances, the fourth Opera Festival proved to be the last. Cincinnati encountered several problems that discouraged the continuation of the festivals. Spring and summer 1884 held labor-related riots and a smallpox epidemic, and Colonel George Ward Nichols fell ill with tuberculosis. Furthermore, the financial cost of holding the festival was great, and the opera companies struggled with income. The first season of the Metropolitan Opera Company managed by Abbey met such financial ruin that it was not continued until years later.
After its first production by the Metropolitan Opera in Cincinnati in 1884, Thomas’ Hamlet received a handful of performances by the Met at the close of the nineteenth century before vanishing from the repertoire throughout the twentieth century. In 2010, Louis Langrée reintroduced Hamlet to the Metropolitan Opera with its first production since 1897. While not full-scale staged performances of the opera, this weekend’s CSO concerts play an important role in reviving Ambroise Thomas’ Hamlet, its unique and beautiful music, and its historical and cultural significance as a Shakespearean adaptation.
Dr. Rebecca Schreiber