Fort Worth — In this year’s Fort Worth Opera Festival, we’ll get the regional premiere of Ambroise Thomas’s 1868 opera Hamlet. The loose adaptation of Shakespeare’s play is based on a French version of the play by Alexander Dumas.
By loose adaptation, be forewarned: this is not the Hamlet you studied in British lit. French audiences in the 18th and 19th centuries evidently found Shakespeare’s bloody ending, with piles of bodies everywhere, tacky. So they changed things up to make the plot more palatable to French tastes.
The history of Thomas’s opera is rather convoluted, and begins with a 1769 French adaptation of Shakespeare’s play that bears little similarity to the original—most importantly, in the 18th-century English version, Hamlet does not die at the end. This ending was echoed by Dumas, who with the assistance of a younger writer, Paul Meurice, created a newer French adaptation of Hamlet. It was more faithful to the original, adding back central elements such as the ghost and the duel, but still Hamlet lives.
The Dumas version of the play became the basis for the libretto of Thomas’s Hamlet. Conductor Joe Illick points out several key changes from Shakespeare’s play: Hamlet’s big aria is a drinking song, which exists nowhere in the play. There’s not much ambiguity about Hamlet’s madness in this version either, unlike the original—Illick says it is definitely feigned.
The ending, however, will remain a surprise. In the original French version of the opera, Hamlet lives and is crowned king. There is also an alternate “Covent Garden” ending, apparently designed for English audiences who objected to such substantive alterations to their iconic play. In this version, Hamlet dies. So what ending will Fort Worth Opera choose to stage? Illick says you’ll have to go to the production to find out—they’ve created a new “Fort Worth ending.”
Baritone Wes Mason, who will sing the role of Hamlet, points out that for audiences to have a good experience at the opera, they need to separate this opera from the play they already know. He observes, “It’s not that, and if you have that expectation, you’ll just be frustrated. As in any adaptation, there are changes that are necessary to the medium. The librettists did an extraordinary job of taking this massive, five-act piece and turning it into French grand opera.”
Illick notes some other changes. He observes that “opera cannot be created with the same logic as straight theater—it takes four or five times longer to say the same thing.” With that in mind, he says that “Polonius sings for eight bars, while Ophelia is elevated to a major character with a love duet, and her mad scene becomes the whole fourth act, 15 minutes.” Also, Illick notes that Gertrude’s part is major, too, which becomes necessary to balance the male and female voices. (In Shakespeare’s play, Ophelia and Gertrude are the only female characters.)
Although this opera was written almost 150 years ago, it is seldom staged, perhaps in part because of the alterations to the iconic play. In fact, Illick observes that none of the cast members have ever sung their roles before. Mason says that he studied the opera a bit in school, but notes that singing a rarely-performed work on stage for the first time is freeing: “It creates a kind of nervous excitement—it’s almost like doing a world premiere. We didn’t have this towering performance practice that you have for the big hits. We had a chance to just take what was written without having to deal with the giants of the past.”
Speaking of giants of the past: how does an opera director set this 16th-century play that was sanitized in the 18th century and turned into an opera in the 19th? By placing it in a 20th-century Cold War totalitarian regime, of course. Director Thaddeus Strassberger has selected sets and costumes that evoke a 1950s military dictatorship.
Hamlet, perhaps Shakespeare’s best-known play, is a vigorous living entity that can absorb any number of variations, adaptations, and changes. In fact, Shakespeare’s version of the tale is itself a retelling of older stories and plays—the debate over exactly what stories and plays has created scholarly and critical debate, making and breaking scholarly careers, for the past four centuries. While Thomas’s operatic realization of the play is a distant relative of Shakespeare’s incarnation of the troubled Danish prince, the narrative itself, a festival of doomed love, tragic death, crisis, and uncertainty, is ideal material for the grandest of operas.
Fort Worth Opera Festival has made a name for itself in recent years by presenting fewer reliable warhorses and more new and overlooked works. Ambroise Thomas’s Hamlet is a welcome addition to the Fort Worth Opera stable.