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Ambroise THOMAS (1811-1896)
Hamlet, opera in five acts (1868)
Hamlet – Stéphane Degout (baritone), Ophélie – Sabine Devieilhe (soprano), Claudius – Laurent Alvaro (bass-baritone), Gertrude – Sylvie Brunet-Grupposo (mezzo-soprano), Laërte – Julian Behr (tenor), Polonius - Nicolas Legoux (bass), Le Spectre – Jérôme Varnier (bass), Horatio / Premier fossoyeur – Yoann Dubruque (baritone), Marcellus / Deuxieme fossoyeur - Kevin Amiel (tenor)
Les éléments
Orchestre des Champs-Elysées/Louis Langrée
Cyril Teste (direction), Ramy Fischler (sets), Isabelle Deffin (costumes), Julien Boizard (lighting)
rec. 19, 21 December, 2018, Opéra Comique, Paris, France.
Sung in French with subtitles in French, English, German, Korean, Japanese, Chinese.
Filmed in High Definition.
Picture: 1080i/16:9 Anamorphic Widescreen. Sound: LPCM Stereo/ DTS-MA 5.1. Region code: A, B, C.
NAXOS Blu-ray NBD0103V [171 mins]

Only a short few months ago I had the opportunity to review Franco Faccio’s 1865 opera Amleto. Now, surprisingly, comes along an opportunity to look at its French cousin: Ambroise Thomas’s Hamlet; compositional riches indeed. Hamlet is an opera that – in spite of its dramatic failures – I have always found to be a hugely enjoyable three hours.

There have been three previous commercial releases: the 1984 Decca version under Richard Bonynge, the 1994 EMI one under Antonio de Almeida, and a 2004 DVD release on EMI under Bertrand de Billy. All three have their specific plusses and minuses but this new Naxos Blu-ray jumps to the head of the list at least on the merits of its musical accomplishments alone. I cannot emphasize strongly enough the benefit of having a cast of native French singers for all the roles. The sound of the words and the musical style is so innate to these singers that it brings the music and the text to life in ways that other singers simply cannot achieve, no matter how splendid their voice and training. In addition, this is a very attractive cast of singers who actually look believable in their respective roles.

Stéphane Degout is a sombre-looking Hamlet who conveys much of his inner torment through his eyes. He fills the music with a beautiful chestnut-coloured baritone. His caressing of the phrases he sings during the Act 1 duet with Ophelia is particularly striking. There are moments where his voice does not quite expand as much as those of his excellent rivals on other recordings, the conclusion of Act 1 for example, but this is a very tiny quibble for such an all-encompassing performance.

Sabine Devieilhe is truly the Ophelia of one’s dreams. She looks the part perfectly, and the crystalline brilliance of her soprano fills every aspect of this role. There is no doubt that this is a French voice but she, thankfully, does not have the typically astringent sound of many French singers (such as Mady Mesplé and Mado Robin), which can detract from the roundness of tone. Her one misstep is the choice to interpolate a high note and cadenza at the conclusion of her Act 2 aria. This is an unfortunate miscalculation, as it robs the music of its increasingly desperate climax. As a comparison, Natalie Dessay’s waif-like portrayal is truly memorable and touching on the EMI DVD but Ms Devieilhe still comes out ahead in nearly every respect.

Julian Behr as Laertes uses his clear honey-coloured tenor to maximum effect in his short Act 1 aria. It is a pity that he gets so little opportunity to sing in the rest of the opera. Laurent Alvaro is a handsome and distinguished-looking Claudius. He sings his role most elegantly but unfortunately his voice has a tendency to woofiness in the upper register.

The role of Gertrude is the hardest one to bring off successfully because much of the extremes of the drama tend to revolve around her character. Vocally it requires the same qualities as Kundry in Parsifal. Sylvie Brunet-Grupposo proves to be the finest exponent of Gertude on any of the commercial recordings. Denyce Graves on the De Almeida CD set has a richer and more luxurious sound to her tone but in every other respect Ms Brunet-Grupposo surpasses her. Jérôme Varnier is a wonderful somnolent presence as the Ghost but he appears to be about the same age as Hamlet himself which makes nonsense of the story.

The Les éléments chorus are a wonderful addition to this performance. Their sound is clean and supple when compared to the usual opera house chorus. This does not mean that they lack impact in the bigger set pieces. In effect, their numbers are among the real highlights to enjoy in this performance.

Louis Langrée gives us a reading of the score that mercifully does not linger too much in any one area. The celebratory marches have a superb sense of buoyancy about them. He also maintains that wonderful fluidity which is so essential in the performance of 19th century French music. L’Orchestre des Champs-Elysées respond beautifully to his direction. The instrumental textures are much clearer than I have noticed in any previous recording. This is undoubtedly due in part to the inspired choice to present these performances at the much smaller Opéra Comique auditorium rather than the huge Opéra Bastille.

Turning to the production, I find the entire affair to be a disappointment. Shakespeare’s play is a drama of intimacy and claustrophobia. It responds very well to bare and simple staging as well as updating the action to a contemporary period. It can work well almost anywhere. Ambroise Thomas’s French grand opera is a different thing entirely and does not work using this approach. Much of his music is occupied with musical scene painting to reinforce the Medieval, Danish setting. The production team has attempted to make this more relevant to today’s audiences by setting it in a modern urban milieu that is sleek-looking but rather cold in manner. By not accepting French grand opera for what it truly is, you are left with all of your attention focused on the failure of Thomas and his librettists to effectively animate Shakespeare’s story. This opera needs to have it scenic grandeur in place if it is to be staged to maximum effect. That fact is sadly lost on the production team who would have been better employed to stage a revival of Shakespeare’s play. In this staging Hamlet and Ophelia are clearly living together in Act 1. Ophelia’s mad scene begins with her intoxication in the bar of the Opéra Comique and then ends up as a sad display of inebriation. Act 5 is placed in a mortuary and there are no gravediggers but rather funeral home attendants. I could go on… To give credit where it is due, Cyril Teste has a few moments of inspired direction; having Hamlet rip the crown off the head of Claudius and place it on the head of actor playing King Gonzago is one of the best. His idea of having the Ghost speak to Hamlet from the middle of the audience is also a fantastic effect. Forcing the action to spill into the audience is one of those techniques from spoken theater that must be used very sparingly if it is to keep its impact. Unfortunately Teste overuses this device throughout the opera, and that negates the brilliance of the Ghost scene in Act 1. With the death of Ophelia, he manages to achieve a truly poetic imagery that registered with me long after the opera had concluded.

The recording engineers have captured this major revival in truly splendid sound, and the video quality is of the highest standard. I will be returning to listen to this wonderful recording again but most likely with the television turned off.

Mike Parr

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