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Monday, March 15, 2010

So How Does It End? Dumas, Shakespeare and Hamlet

The Metropolitan Opera production of Hamlet bows on Tuesday night, with the company's first performance of the opera since 1897.

A poster for the 1868 premiere of Hamlet.

Controversy has followed Ambroise Thomas' opera since it premiere in 1868 at the Paris Opera. French audiences were delighted by its virtuoso writing for the soprano voice and faithful treatment of Shakespeare's famous soliloquies. However, the opera's ending, which differs radically from the last act of the play) continues to upset Shakespearean purists, scholars and critics.

Here's why:

  • Laertes confronts Hamlet at Ophelia's funeral procession. (That's in the play.)
  • The Ghost appears, and urges Hamlet to kill Claudius.
  • Hamlet skewers Claudius.
  • Hamlet is crowned King.
When the opera was revised for performance at Covent Garden, Thomas made a few changes:

  • The Ghost was omitted from the last act.
  • Hamlet killed Claudius and then himself. This omits all that pesky nonsense about "to be or not to be."

Part of the blame for these un-Hamlet-like endings lies with the librettists. Jules Barbier and Michael Carré are the same team who re-wrote Goethe's Faust as an opera for Charles Gounod (an act which may have caused the Franco-Prussian War.) However, their libretto for Hamlet was based not on the original Shakespeare, but on a French edition of the play written by none other than Alexandre Dumas père.

Yes, that Dumas. The French novelist, best known for The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo, thought nothing of cheerfully altering the ending of the play, in the same entertaining style with which he bastardized history to write the Musketeers. Dumas' approach to Shakespeare omits many of the secondary characters, tightens up the action, and ends with Denmark being slightly less rotten. The librettists go even further, giving the prince a rousing drinking song, omitting the murder of Polonius, and letting Queen Gertrude survive the carnage at the opera's end.

But wait, there's another ending!
  • Hamlet still kills Claudius.
  • He perishes at the point of Laërtes' sword.
This approach was first conceived for the Decca recording of the opera, starring Sherrill Milnes and Joan Sutherland, and conducted by Richard Bonynge. (Unfortunately it's out of print.) It's still not strictly Shakespeare, but the tragic denouement is closer to the heart of the play. Either way, this rare opera (it has not been staged at the Met since 1897) is a welcome addition to the 2010 season, and the performance of Simon Keenlyside in the title role promises to be one of the highlights of the next few weeks.

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