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Ambroise Thomas Revitalizes Shakespeare's 'Hamlet'

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woo-1635-hamlet-thomas-storyIn Cole Porter's 1948 musical Kiss Me, Kate, the tune "Brush Up Your Shakespeare" advises gentlemen that spouting the great bard's verses is a sure way to impress the ladies.  In 2016, the entire world has been brushing up its Shakespeare for an completely different reason:  This year marks the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death.

To be sure, the death of great literary figure is hardly something that we celebrate -- at least not in the usual sense of the word.  It's an occasion that's observed, or commemorated.  Yet, for Shakespeare lovers, the anniversary has led to something that surely is worth celebrating: This year has seen a notable uptick in productions of Shakespeare's plays -- and the same thing has been going on with operas based on those plays.

Often, when an opera company decides to stage a drama based on Shakespeare, the resulting production features an opera by Verdi.  In fact, it sometimes seems that Verdi is the only composer who ever based operas on Shakespeare.  And there's a reason for that:  Verdi's Macbeth, Otello and Falstaff arguably represent about half of all the Shakespeare-based operas that are still widely performed.  When it came to setting Shakespeare to music, Verdi plainly had a unique genius.

Unfortunately for opera lovers, Verdi hardly had time to set all of Shakespeare's nearly 40 plays.  But, on the brighter side, Shakespeare's work has been inspiring composers ever since opera was invented -- back when Shakespeare himself was still alive -- and many of those plays have inspired fine, if less familiar operas.

For example, there are more than 30 operas based on Hamlet.  And why not?  Near the end of the play, one character describes its events as a story "of carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts ... of accidental judgments, casual slaughters, of deaths put on by cunning ..."  What could be more operatic than that?

Yet, for many composers, the drama has caused problems. Mendelssohn, Respighi, Bizet, and even Verdi himself seem to have considered setting Hamlet to music. None of them ever managed it. Others did complete Hamlet operas, but with little success.

But for the 19th-century French composer Ambroise Thomas, Hamlet was a different story. He began his musical version of the play in the late 1850s.  For the libretto, Thomas turned to Julies Barbier and Michel Carré, a team with a pretty good resumé -- they also worked with Gounod on Faust and Romeo and Juliet -- and the opera's 1868 premiere was a great success.

Still, before long, the piece pretty much disappeared, for nearly a century.  The libretto may have been one reason for that.  Barbier and Carré may have had a solid track record, but they also took considerable liberties with Shakespeare's original. Most notably, some of the many characters who die in the play are left alive as the opera ends -- including Hamlet himself!  But, the opera is hardly all sweetness and light.  Hamlet may survive, but not without plenty of conflict, mystery and heartbreak along the way.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Thomas's Hamlet, a story set in Scandinavia, in a production from one of Scandinavia's foremost opera companies, the Göteborg Opera in Sweden.  Baritone Thomas Oliemans sings the title role, and soprano Ditte Højgaard Anderson gives a brilliant performance in the coloratura role of Ophelia.