FWO Archives: 'Hamlet' Program Notes (2015 Festival)
Updated: Jul 9
The following is an excerpt from our 2015 Festival program book.
French composer Charles Louis Ambroise Thomas (1811- 1896) is best known now for two operas: Mignon (1866) and Hamlet (1868). He is also remembered for being the director of the Paris Conservatory from 1871 until his death, during a time of increasing focus on notional styles in composition and the beginnings of Wagner's influence across Europe. Being born to musical parents, Thomas and his older brother were both destined to become musicians themselves. Their father played in theater orchestras and became a well-respected music teacher later in life. Their mother was also a music teacher and an accomplished singer. Of the brothers, the elder Charles played cello for the orchestra of the Opéra Comique in Paris, where the younger Ambroise joined him to study at the Paris Conservatory in 1828. Entering the school as a pianist, Thomas began studying composition, and in 1832, he won the Grand Prix de Rome, a prestigious competition held by the Conservatory that financed the winning composer's travel and study in Rome for three years. Thomas discovered a love for Italian melody during his time there, which can be heard in some of the songs, piano pieces, and chamber works he composed during his sojourn. The composer traveled briefly to Germany from Rome, but then returned to Paris and set his sights on the Opéra Comique.
Thomas' very first opera was a comic opera produced at the Opéra Comique in 1837. The opera La double échelle eventually received 247 performances, but his second comic opera, a Rossini-inspired piece called Le caïd (1849), was an unprecedented success, having over 362 performances and proving the be/ canto ("beautiful singing") style was moving beyond Italy. Eventually, Thomas composed roughly 20 operas, but most of them have fallen out of the repertory. Critics blame the low quality of his librettos for that fact, since it was noted that the music he composed was lyrical and fit very well into the tastes of the time.
Listen to Music Director and Composer Joe Illick discuss the nuances of Hamlet in this episode of CLEF NOTES with JOE
Like his other operas, Mignon (1866) also premiered at the Opéra Comique, but it was the first opera that garnered him critical attention outside of France. Within the next 28 years, in Paris alone, the opera received over 1,000 performances, but it was produced and well received all over Europe. Mignon is rarely produced today, and the reason for that, according to Julius Rudel, conductor and well-known general director of New York City Opera from 1957 to 1979, was that Thomas bowed too much to the compositional rules of the day and made the music and libretto too sentimental, which did not fit with the original tragic story by Goethe.
Read the TheaterJones Review by Gregory Sullivan Isaacs of Hamlet HERE
Thomas' next opera was Hamlet (1868), a strategic choice for the composer for several reasons. Thomas had a strong affinity for Shakespeare. The bard's work first appeared in 1850 in Thomas' Le songe d'une nuit d'été (A Midsummer Night's Dream), a rather odd grab bag of a work that had little to do with the original play. The opera included Falstaff (the character in three of Shakespeare's plays), Elizabeth I, and the bard himself. Mignon, which came along a number of years after Thomas became a composition professor at the Paris Conservatory in the late 1850s, also included a Shakespearean reference to A Midsummer Night' s Dream. In the first act of the opera, a group of actors is preparing for a performance of the play, not unlike the play-within-a-play found in Hamlet.
The composer's initial strategy lay in the selection of Hamlet for his base material. Setting great literary works was exceedingly popular in 19th century France, and Hamlet, a tragedy about revenge - a topic well-suited to opera - is credited as being unsurpassed in all of Western literature.
The chosen librettists were also part of the composer 's plan. Jules Barbier and Michel Carré worked together first in 1852, and rather quickly, they became the go-to duo for adapting literary works. Their lasting works are Faust (1859) and Roméo et Juliette (1867) both for Charles-François Gounod and The Tales of Hoffman (1881) for Jacques Offenbach. No strangers to Thomas, the duo had previously written the librettos for the composer's Psyché (1857) and Mignon, and after Hamlet, they wrote Françoise de Rimini (1882) for Thomas too.
Naturally, adapting a Shakespearian play into an operatic format offered the librettists certain challenges, but they succeeded in condensing it into a workable and still dramatic libretto. Certain familiar elements, characters, and subtleties of the story had to be omitted (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, for example, never appear, and Hamlet does not kill Polonius). Other elements of the opera were either changed or added to the original play in order to give Thomas some intensely dramatic moments to score. The moment that Claudius is accused in public of murdering the king happens at the end of the play, but it occurs in the second act of the opera, giving Thomas the opportunity to unleash a powerful and passionate ensemble scene. However, it was the librettists' additions in two other areas that gained them praise and criticism in equal measure.
Ophelia's death, for Shakespeare, is relayed by Queen Gertrude to Laertes. The audience does not witness the girl's final moments, and the question is left to interpretation if her death was, in fact, an accident generated by madness or suicide. For Thomas, Barbier, and Carré though, Ophelia 's death was too delicious a morsel to leave off the stage. The "Mad Scene" certainly had roots in the be/ canto style that Thomas appreciated so much. Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor and Bellini's I Puritani have similar mad scenes that include the heroine succumbing to the idea of her lover's betrayal. For the opera's Ophelia and her descent into complete madness and death, Thomas generated a true tour-de-force scene, requiring not only a soprano capable of incredible lyrical brilliance and stamina, but also its own act.
Watch the trailer from our 2015 production of Hamlet
One change the librettists made in their adaption of the play, a change that reflected the tastes of the opera-going public in Paris at the time, is what ultimately caused the biggest criticism of the piece - Hamlet lives and is crowned king. Those days, all operas done at the Opéra Comique had happy endings, so Barbier and Carré decided to use Alexandre Dumas' 1847 translation of the play to provide the ending they needed. However, by the time the opera was to be performed in 1870 at London's Convent Garden, a much more English version of the ending had been adapted in which Hamlet is killed by Laertes, as Shakespeare intended. This is the ending Fort Worth Opera's production uses.
Synopsis & Program Notes by Hannah Guinn, former Director of the Fort Worth Opera Studio & Education.
Music by Ambroise Thomas
Libretto by Michel Carré and Jules Barbier Sung in French
Claudius: Kim Josephson
Gertrude: Robynne Redmon
Hamlet: Wes Mason
Ophelia: Talise Trevigne*
Laertes: Kevin Newell
Marcellus: Dane Suarez*
Horatio: Nathaniel Mattingly*
Ghost: Stephen Clark*
Polonius: Wesley Gentle*
Gravedigger 1: Matt Moeller
Gravedigger 2: Brian Wallin*
Conductor: Joe Illick
Director: Thaddeus Strassberger*
Scenic Designer: Thaddeus Strassberger*
Costume Designer: Mary Traylor*
Lighting Designer: Chad R. Jung
Makeup and Wig Designer: Steven Bryant
Stage Manager: Gina Hays
Assistant Director: Andrew Nienaber
Repetiteur: Emily Jarrell Urbanek
English Supertitle Translation: Ward Holmquist
Spanish Supertitle Translation: Gabriela Lomónaco
Featuring the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra
Presented in five acts with one intermission.
Co-Production by the Lyric Opera of Kansas City and Washington National Opera.
Scenery construction and painting by Lyric Opera of Kansas City Scenic Studio, Ravenswood Scenery. Costumes fabricated by Lyric Opera of Kansas City and Washington National Opera Costume Studio.