The Italian Opera. Ambroise Thomas' Opera "Hamlet"

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The Italian Opera. Ambroise Thomas' Opera "Hamlet" (Итальянская опера. «Гамлет» опера Амбруаза Тома) [1] (TH 272 ; ČW 536) was Tchaikovsky's tenth music-review article for the Moscow journal Russian Register (Русские ведомости), in which it was published on 16 December 1872 [O.S.], signed only with the initials "B.L.".

Alongside a very unfavourable review of Thomas' opera, this article also contains interesting reflections on why Shakespeare's Hamlet does not lend itself at all to operatic or even symphonic treatment—reflections which are especially interesting in view of Tchaikovsky's later approach to this tragedy in his overture-fantasia of 1888 and the incidental music to Hamlet of 1891.


Completed by 16/28 December 1872 (date of publication). Concerning a production of Ambroise Thomas' opera Hamlet at the Moscow Bolshoi Theatre on 8/20 December 1872, with Christina Nilsson as Ophelia.

English translation

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Ever since the death of Scribe [2], that great master in constructing clever, lively, and characteristic opera scenarios, librettists in France, despairing of their own inventive faculties, have started cobbling together their plots from the masterpieces of foreign literature, in particular from Shakespeare and Goethe.

After Gounod's Faust, which enjoyed a huge success everywhere, the following operas have appeared: one by the same composer based on Shakespeare's tragedy Romeo and Juliet, then Mignon and, finally, Hamlet, both of which are by Ambroise Thomas [3]. If it is true that it takes a lot of brazen courage to venture on borrowings of this kind, then there can be no doubt that the prize for the greatest self-confidence amongst all the cobblers of opera plots goes to Messrs Carré and Barbier [4], who have not been afraid to lay their hands on that great artistic figure which is Shakespeare's Hamlet.

Amongst German composers there hasn't to this day been a single one who has ventured on a musical representation of this great figure—neither as an opera, nor even in symphonic form, which would after all be the most suitable genre of music for trying to express the profound idea on which Shakespeare based the immortal type of his Danish prince [5]. With that critical acumen which is characteristic of Germans, the composers of the German school understood that music, no matter how powerful it may be in conveying the various moods of the human spirit, would be quite incapable of doing justice to that most outstanding aspect of Hamlet, namely the caustic irony which pervades all of his speeches and those purely intellectual processes which go on in his mind, somewhat deranged as it is anyway because of the rancour that has accumulated in him, and which turn him into a gloomy sceptic who has lost all faith in the positive sides of human nature.

The light-minded Frenchman, however, who looks at every dramatic work first and foremost from the point of view of its outward effects, won't stop for long to dwell on the fine points of Hamlet's psychology: he just sees in him the usual tragic hero, an avenger of his father's death who, for the sake of securing this revenge, is willing to sacrifice the love of the fair Ophelia. And then there is of course the father's ghost—most tempting for a seasoned librettist—not to speak of the demented Ophelia amidst the dancing country-people, the entrances and exits of the royal couple, accompanied by fanfares of trumpets and cymbals: all this is more than sufficient for an effective opera scenario, and so Messrs Carré and Barbier gladly set about concocting a libretto for Ambroise Thomas, who until then had most likely not even been aware of the existence of Shakespeare and his Hamlet.

It goes without saying that after being transferred from the dramatic stage onto that of the French opera-house, Hamlet must lose all his characteristic traits and become no more than an ordinary operatic hero. Likewise, everything that was unsuitable for the music (Polonius, Fortinbras, Rosenkranz, Güldenstern) had to be thrown out, of course, and whatever was suitable had to be set in greater relief—but, after all, what concern is it of Ambroise Thomas and his librettists to respect the sacredness of Shakespeare's art?! Their opera has turned out most effective for the stage, and that is all that a Frenchman is looking for. By the way, I hasten to add that however much the French librettists deviated from the plot of the original tragedy, their work is nevertheless not devoid of action, interest, and sense, and, with regard to the practical requirements of the stage, it is by no means any worse than the most famous operatic libretti of the French school.

In many places the authors even tried to stick to Shakespeare's text, so that certain numbers—the duet in Act I, for example—have turned out quite well as far as their literary merits are concerned. On the whole, if at the end of the opera Messrs Carré and Barbier hadn't come up with the utterly incongruous idea of having the Ghost appear again, during Ophelia's funeral, to decide on the fate of each of the protagonists according to his or her merits, thus confining the Queen into a nunnery and ordering Hamlet to take up the royal sceptre, then, in spite of the greater or lesser degree of distortion to which Shakespeare's tragedy inevitably had to be subjected in such an adaptation, one could consider this libretto for Thomas' new opera to be quite successful in providing a fruitful basis for musical treatment.

Let us now consider, in the order of the scenes as they appear in the opera, the music of this famous French composer, in order to subsequently attempt a general evaluation of this work of his, which in any case is of great interest. The opera begins with a brief Introduction of a sombre and solemn nature, which is interrupted by fanfares of trumpets from the stage as the curtain rises. Act I takes place in the palace of the King, who is celebrating his wedding to Hamlet's mother. After a march and chorus in the grand style of Meyerbeer the Queen enters, and her husband addresses her in a most insipid arioso, which is again interrupted by the chorus, until finally the royal couple and the court exit the stage. After this first number comes a duet between Hamlet and Ophelia, which is quite skilfully and beautifully constructed around a flowing melody of an amorous character. This melody is not in any way original, but it is elegant and graceful, and sounds particularly delightful when it modulates into the mediant as we hear Ophelia's voice for the first time in this duet. I rank this duet amongst the most successful numbers of the opera, both by virtue of its roundedness of form and, in particular, by virtue of its melodiousness which is a great blessing for the singers. The subsequent music of Act I does not have anything outstanding to offer, and the Chorus of Courtiers and Pages without orchestral accompaniment, despite its having been written with the obvious intention of producing a stunning effect with its spicy rhythm à la Offenbach, stands out for its incredible banality and would certainly not be out of place in some old Barbe-Bleu or La belle Hélène.

The second scene in Act I takes us to the parapets of Elsinore castle during a snow-storm in a wintry night. The orchestral prelude which leads up to the encounter between Hamlet and his father's spectre, his address to the Ghost, and the broad phrase played by the cellos after the latter has vanished, which conveys Hamlet's horror and grief at having glimpsed the beloved features of his father—all this betrays the hand of an experienced master who has an excellent knowledge of vocal and stage effects in opera, and who knows too how to use them in the right measure and at the right moment.

In Act II I would like to single out the charming little song of Ophelia as she is reading—which, if I am not mistaken, the composer has borrowed from Scandinavian folksongs—and Hamlet's bacchanalian aria in the scene with the travelling players. The Queen's arioso and the whole scene between her and her son are skilfully constructed, in a way that again testifies to the composer's mastery of operatic technique, but unfortunately they are devoid of musical interest, colourless, and melodically poor.

The second scene of this act (which corresponds to Act III in our production) presents us with the pantomime which Hamlet has organised in the presence of the court. It closes with a great ensemble, which is very interesting from the technical point of view and which is not devoid even of a certain novelty—for example, in the episodic re-appearance of the bacchanalian them from the preceding scene.

In Act III (i.e. Act IV of our production) we are treated to a hugely comic effect courtesy of Hamlet's monologue "To be or not to be", which God knows why the librettists decided to include in the lines of their operatic hero! In contrast, the King's aria is certainly one of the highlights of the opera, in particular thanks to the splendid orchestral accompaniment. In the following trio between the Queen, Ophelia, and Hamlet the stretta which rounds off this number is particularly nice, and so is a phrase of Ophelia's in particular, which conveys very well the reproaches of a hopelessly deserted woman and gives a presentiment of the tragic denouement.

The second scene of Act III (which in this production has been turned into the fifth and final act) opens with a long and boring ballet of supposedly merry peasants, which has no musical value whatsoever, and after the ballet comes the no less feeble and insipid scene of Ophelia's madness, in which everything has been tailored according to the vocal and interpretative qualities of Madame Nilsson, for whom indeed the role of Ophelia was created by the composer. Of the watery and thin music with which Thomas seeks to convey the madness of the fair Ophelia, the only thing that stands out is her ballad, which is again drawn from the Scandinavian folksong tradition—a tradition which is rich in beautiful melodies that resemble to some extent our own Great Russian [6] folksongs.

Act V is considered to be superfluous here in Moscow, and, for considerations which remain a mystery to me, is omitted altogether. The result is that all the fanciful constructions of the Shakespearean intrigue, the whole complicated development of the dramatic action culminate in Ophelia lying down on her back in the water and being swept away by the current of the river along its unknown course… that is, beg your pardon!, into the wings on the right, directly towards the spot where Mr Valts [7] is standing and lovingly supervising the running of his machinery, which does a very good job of creating the illusion of a river-stream.

I can well imagine the amazement which those spectators who are not familiar with Shakespeare's tragedy must feel when they see Ophelia floating away towards the sea and carrying off with her forever the secret of the fate awaiting Hamlet and those closest to him. For the spectators will leave the theatre without a clue as to why Hamlet had been raging so furiously and kicking up such a row, without a clue as to what then became of the King and his consort, where the ghost of Hamlet's father vanished to, and, last but not least, without knowing where Ophelia was swept to by the stream—did she safely reach some distant shore, or was she perhaps eaten up by a huge shark along the way? I will let those readers who haven't yet seen the opera to judge for themselves how shamelessly the management of the theatres is treating the public by making a mockery in this fashion of the common sense of our most undemanding and forbearing theatre-goers.

Now I shall state, in a few words, my opinion about the music of this opera Hamlet, which in France is considered to be marvellous, but which here evidently did not go down too well with our public.

Ambroise Thomas is an experienced musician, who has cultivated his limited abilities to the utmost degree of refinement, and who has fully mastered the technical aspect of his profession, but for all that he is without any semblance of originality. His music is stitched together with colourful little patches from Meyerbeer, Gounod, Verdi, and Auber, and is, moreover, stitched together so adroitly that you cannot tell where one borrowed patch ends and where another begins. In his music you will search in vain for those passionate outbursts which testify to genuine talent, for those equally important transitions from strongly sensed dramatic moments to less prominent musical ideas and forms: everything that Ambroise Thomas has written is smooth, clear, and uniform, but for that very reason it is so poor. A music specialist cannot but follow with great interest all the tricks which this composer avails himself of, in order to conceal his artistic impotence through dazzling technique, but for the majority of the public this music must seem extremely boring, colourless, and excruciatingly insipid.

The only thing that to some extent makes up for Thomas' dearth of imagination is his splendidly colourful and truly artistic instrumentation. But, on the other hand, in these times of ours, when external effects so predominate everywhere (that is, when music's flesh predominates over its spirit), who does not strive for bright orchestral colours?! Which composer will not make every effort to win over audiences through the external prettiness of his music at the expense of what should be the very essence of his work?! I am convinced that Hamlet owes its success exclusively to this aspect of its music, as well as to the additional circumstance that in all the opera-houses where Hamlet has been staged successfully the role of Ophelia has been performed by such a highly talented and inimitable singer as Madame Nilsson.

Although it is clear that the public liked Madame Nilsson's Ophelia less than they did her Marguerite, this is not at all because in the former role she failed to display such a fine combination of appealing qualities as when performing the latter. Rather, the less enthusiastic response awakened by Madame Nilsson as Ophelia, compared to her extraordinary success in Faust [8], is due to Gounod's musical talent being far superior to Thomas' quite limited and shallow gifts as a composer.

Signor Graziani [9], who tackled his new difficult role very conscientiously, is not all convincing in the poetic role of the Danish prince, but he did sing with great passion, though his intonation was not quite immaculate. The part of the King was performed by Signor Bagaggiolo with his habitual lifelessness, but at least he applied himself to it with diligence and confidence.

The same goes for the enchanting Madame Ferucci (who sang the Queen), who is very well-known in Moscow, having already been a member of the Italian Opera Company when Madame Artôt first visited our city. She has gained considerably in aplomb, but not so as far as her artistry as a singer is concerned: as before, she continues to sing with a voice that is still strong and fresh, but which seems constantly to be trembling and reminds one of the bleating of a young sheep.

The choruses sang somewhat better than is normally the case. On the whole, this opera was rehearsed with significantly less of that carelessness with which Italian operas are usually staged and revived here. One could see that some effort was actually put into rehearsing it properly, for which we certainly must be grateful to Signor Merelli's management of the theatre. The scenery in this production was fairly tolerable, although it must be said that the cavaliers and ladies in the royal court scenes appeared in those very same antediluvian rags which cast a rather embarrassing shadow on the splendour of their sovereign lord whenever kings, dukes, and their entourages are supposed to appear on our stage.

"B. L."

Notes and References

  1. Entitled 'The Italian Opera—Hamlet, an Opera by Ambroise Thomas' in ČW.
  2. Eugène Scribe (1791–1861), famous French dramatist and librettist.
  3. Ambroise Thomas (1811–1896), prolific French opera composer, whose Mignon (1866), inspired by Goethe's Wilhelm Meister, is still sometimes performed today — note by Ernst Kuhn.
  4. Michel Carré (1819–1872) and Jules Barbier (1822–1901), French writers who also worked together on a number of opera libretti —' 'note by Ernst Kuhn.
  5. The figure of Hamlet acquired particular resonance amongst the Russian intelligentsia, ever since the famous tragedian Mochalov's performance of this role in Moscow in the 1830s, and the Danish prince's predicament of seeing his "native hue of resolution […] sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought" came to be associated with the intelligentsia's own failure to do anything about the social injustices and problems which its members so keenly perceived (see, for example, Turgenev's 1848 story A Hamlet of the Shchigry District). Tchaikovsky himself did not dare to tackle this subject until 1888, when, following an initial suggestion from his brother Modest, he wrote his overture-fantasia Hamlet for symphony orchestra — translator's note.
  6. i.e. "Great Russian"' (velikorussky) used here to refer specifically to the folksongs of central and northern Russia in contrast to the (often livelier) songs of the Ukraine—"Little Russia" as it was known in Imperial Russia—which Tchaikovsky used amply in his Second Symphony, popularly referred to as the "Little-Russian" Symphony— translator's note.
  7. Karl Valts (1846–1929) was in charge of stage effects at the Bolshoi Theatre for many years —note by Ernst Kuhn.
  8. See Tchaikovsky's enthusiastic review of her performance as Marguerite in TH 271.
  9. Francesco Graziani (1828–1901), Italian baritone — note by Ernst Kuhn.