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Thomas, Ambroise: Hamlet (DVD) EMI/Liceu 2003

Thomas: Hamlet (DVD)

HamletDVD1

I cannot imagine the quality of the three central performances even being approached, let alone surpassed” Opera

Composer Ambroise Thomas
Conductor Bertrand de Billy
Director Jean-Michel Criqui (Revival Director)
Performers
Hamlet: Simon Keenlyside
Ophélie: Natalie Dessay
Gertrude: Béatrice Uria-Monzon
Claudius: Alain Vernhes
Laërte: Daniil Shtoda
Le Spectre: Markus Hollop
Marcellus: Gustavo Peña
Horatio: Lluís Sintes
Polonius: Celestino Varela
Chorus and Orchestra of the Gran Teatre del Liceu
Label EMI Classics on DVD
Number of Discs 2
Code 5994479
Recorded at the Gran Teatre del Liceu, October 2003
Released September 6, 2004
Running time 176 minutes
Edition Details Region 0, PAL,
Technical Details Sound Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround
ASIN: B0002TTTK6

Click here for Hamlet performances pages

Photo Gallery

What the critics say

Benoît Berger for forumopera.com

For English translation, see below

Quelle belle postérité musicale, en vérité, que celle de l’oeuvre shakespearien. Lorsque pourtant apparaît dans les bacs une nouvelle version de l’/Hamlet/ de Thomas, l’auditeur est-il en terres connues ? Certes non ! N’est pas Verdi qui veut ! Car si l’oeuvre fut l’une des plus jouées jusqu’au tournant des années ’50, si surtout de nombreux gosiers se sont escrimés sur les pages les plus courues de l’ouvrage (Battistini, Melba entre autres, mais aussi Callas plus près de nous, c’est à la fois tant et si peu), peu d’intégrales se signalent à la mémoire.

Sutherland s’était offert le luxe d’une Ophélie /coachée/, à son automne, par son Bonynge de mari, de Almeida plus récemment a tenté à son tour l’expérience… et c’est en fait à peu près tout, du moins pour ce qui concerne les coffrets “régulièrement” disponibles.

L’oeuvre, comme beaucoup de grands opéras du XIXème siècle, aligne autant de beaux moments que de pages prosaïques, voire franchement vulgaires. Pour d’aussi beaux moments que le duo Hamlet/Ophélie de l’acte 1, combien faudra-t-il ainsi subir de choeurs débraillés ! Combien de fanfares pour la si belle scène de la folie d’Ophélie ! Pour le magnifique “Comme une pâle fleur” de Hamlet à l’acte 5, il faudra, hélas, passer par son invraisemblable /brindisi/ du 2 qui aurait dû grandement faire rougir Thomas. Le même pourtant peut s’enorgueillir de moments solides à défaut d’être vraiment géniaux, comme les affrontements opposant Hamlet à sa mère ou encore la scène d’apparition clôturant l’acte 1, innervée de sonorités lugubres, moites, sépulcrales.

A la tête de sa phalange espagnole, de Billy, chef de théâtre aguerri et très couru, tire de ces pages inégales toute une substantifique moelle que l’on n’imaginait pas sourdre de la partition. Le prélude affiche de belles couleurs, comme aussi la scène d’apparition déjà évoquée, traversée de couleurs fauves et fuligineuses. L’aspect dramatique de l’oeuvre, magistralement exposé, n’oblitère pourtant jamais sa tendresse latente, non plus d’une certaine manière que l’humour sardonique qui parcourt des scènes comme celle de la représentation théâtrale de l’acte 2. De Billy a choisi de ne pas se mettre en avant, usant au contraire de /tempi/ conçus pour offrir à la voix le plus juste et musical soutien possible. De la belle ouvrage en somme, qu’il faut récompenser comme il se doit.

La mise en scène de Caurier et Leiser, comme toujours, ne peut laisser indifférent. Fera-t-elle pourtant l’unanimité ? Il est permis d’en douter. Les deux compères tissent, à leur habitude, un enchevêtrement d’images qui ne cherchent pas l’hédonisme visuel, allant jusqu’à la vision /trash/ et /gore/ d’une Ophélie ensanglantée se mutilant, dans sa folie, la poitrine. Comme souvent, le choeur est abandonné à son triste sort (simplement ridicule, ce premier acte où les pauvres choristes expriment leur ébriété en “titubant” les bras en l’air), et de manière assez habituelle dans les productions de Caurier et Leiser, l’ensemble du plateau s’avère cruellement mal éclairé (Gertrude est même Presque invisible, noyée d’ombre dans son duo avec Claudius au 2). Pourtant la caméra, utilisée bien intelligemment ici, révèle ce que le spectateur noyé d’images, dans la salle, ne fait que supputer : Caurier et Leiser sont des directeurs d’acteurs de tout premier ordre. Il faut voir l’intelligent second degré de la scène des mimes à l’acte 2; il faut voir aussi la prodigieuse mobilité d’expression suggérée à Uria-Monzon dans son duo avec Ophélie ; il faut voir enfin de quelle manière Dessay peut, dans un tel contexte, être véritablement Ophélie jusqu’à l’insoutenable presque.

Ainsi révélée dramatiquement à elle-même, la distribution n’en reste pas moins avant tout d’une excellence vocale insigne. Passons rapidement sur le Claudius grand seigneur mais irrémédiablement trémulant de Vernhes qui fait regretter les Van Dam et Ramey qui l’ont précédé. Distribuer Laërte, ténor sous utilisé par Thomas, à un chanteur comme Dannil Shtoda, timbre émacié, lyrisme bandé comme un arc, pourrait passer pour un contresens alors que l’on attend ici un /secondo uomo/ au timbre rond, mais aussi léger et solaire. Et pourtant l’incarnation, noyée des brumes du Nord, fonctionne mieux que bien et toute réserve s’écroule devant tant de naturel. Le Spectre de Marcus Hollop a à la fois la profondeur, la noirceur et le fruité que l’on attend de cette figure de “commandeur” et son phrasé royal dit tout de son rang “pre-mortem”! De Béatrice Uria-Monzon, il y aurait beaucoup à dire, ne serait-ce que vocalement. Car líémission reste assez engorgée, la diction níest pas toujours irréprochable, la ligne heurtée, hachée par une projection expressionniste, presque outrancière. Mais il y a du plaisir à se laisser porter par ce timbre rude, rougeoyant. Quelle expérience aussi que cet aigu fier et ce grave à la fois rugueux et cossu. Quelle incarnation d’exception surtout : cette figure de mère au timbre ensanglanté, à la fois tendre et turpide, rattrapée par son forfait, reine pleine d’honneur et cauteleuse à la fois, tout cela fait rêver de la lady Macbeth et de la Clytemnestre straussienne, incontournables, que Uria-Monzon pourrait vite devenir.

Pourtant, s’il fallait ne garder qu’un souvenir de cette production, ce serait celui du couple formé par Simon Keenlyside et Natalie Dessay,

Hamlet et Ophélie pour l’éternité. Lui a la présence sauvage, mais aussi l’emportement juvénile qui font de lui un Hamlet de tout premier ordre. Mais il a surtout ce français limpide, cette projection de caméléon capable de tous les accents, d’un lyrisme rude ou châtié, d’une projection franche et claire, de demi-teintes ténues, fragiles qui rendent son portrait d’une crédibilité sans failles.

Natalie Dessay, qui a chanté Ophélie de Genève à Paris en passant par Toulouse et Londres, semble être arrivée, pour cette production, au terme de son cheminement d’interprète qui est celui de l’identification, de la symbiose totale. Personne ne sortira indemne de la confrontation avec ce naturel dramatique rare, avec cette féminité emportée, ruisselante d’humanité. Car Dessay a bien compris que Ophélie n’est pas de ces personnages complexes, “entre deux eaux” (même si le jeu de mot peut paraître facile dans un tel contexte), habités de sentiments contradictoires. L’artiste a saisi ce caractère incontournable de l’héroïne qui tient en un mot, l’amour. C’est cet amour qui la mènera parmi les arcanes de tous les affects, du rayonnement solaire de l’acte 1 à l’inquiétude, au doute, à la fêlure des actes suivants, jusqu’à l’ultime basculement dans la folie. La voix elle-même se modèle au gréde ces différentes périodes psychologiques. Le timbre a considérablement mûri ces dernières années et Dessay peut s’offrir désormais le luxe d’une Ophélie “terrienne”, véritablement incarnée, être de chair palpitante, être souffrant. Le grave et le médium surtout ont pris un poids considérable, la liaison des registres s’est affinée et, si l’aigu s’est un peu écrêté, s’il a perdu de sa radiance et de sa prodigieuse liberté, lui aussi en quittant ses hauteurs stratosphériques a gagné en humanité. Or, Dessay a appris à vivre avec cette évolution vocale, lle sait en jouer en funambule de talent, sans filet, osant tout, jouant de toutes les variations de tempi, de tous les ports de voix, chantant  ans

toutes les positions, ne craignant ni le cri ni le plus infime des murmures. Il faut au moins la voir hurler son désespoir dans une scène de folie comme on en a peu entendu (Callas comprise, et pas seulement dans Hamlet), surpassant tout ce qui s’est fait avant elle en termes de vocalité pure, recroquevillée, présence frêle, décharnée presque, instaurant de nouveaux standards avec lesquels il faudra désormais compter.

Un dvd précieux donc qui fait comprendre tout ce que ce nouveau support peut vouloir dire pour l’avenir lyrique, pleinement justifié dans son rôle de témoin. Une production violente, au dramatisme puissant et pour laquelle l’image n’est jamais redondante avec la seule captation sonore. Une distribution enfin de /primo cartello/, et un couple vedette au plein sens du terme; et pour finir, une scène de folie hallucinée et tendre à la fois, la plus intensément vocale, vécue comme jamais, laissant le spectateur hagard, parcouru de frissons, sans doute la plus incontournable jamais captée.

Benoît Berger for forumopera.com

Translated by Jane Garratt

Truly, the works of Shakespeare have left us a beautiful musical legacy. Nevertheless, is the listener on familiar ground when a new version of Thomas’s Hamlet appears on our shelves? Certainly not! This isn’t Verdi! There are few complete recordings for us to remember, even though the work was one of the most played records from the ‘50s, and even though the piece was attempted by the most celebrated singers. (Battistini and Melba among others, but also Callas nearer to our era, at the same time such great, and so few performances). Sutherland was offered the luxury of playing Ophelia, at the end of her career, coached by her husband Bonynge, and Almeida most recently was given the experience in her turn… and it’s become, more or less for those concerned with collections, “regularly” available.

Like most of the grand operas of the 19th century, the work is as much concerned with prosaic, seemingly frankly vulgar, episodes as with beautiful moments. Although the duo between Hamlet and Ophélie in act one is beautiful, must you also suffer from slovenly choruses many times? How many fanfares for the most beautiful scene of Ophélie’s madness! For the magnificent “Like a pale flower” of Hamlet in act 5, one must, unfortunately, get past his improbable “brindisi” of act 2 which should have made Thomas blush greatly. Yet, he might boast of the solid moments whilst lacking true genius. For example the confrontation between Hamlet and his mother, or the ghost scene, which closes act 1, which is unsettlingly full of gloomy tones, sticky and tomb-like.

At the head of his Spanish phalanx of stars, de Billy, in charge of the theatre, hardened and very popular, draws from these unequal pages all the real substance that one cannot readily imagine springing from the score. The prelude displayed beautiful colours, which the apparition scene had already evoked; it was shot through with fawn and sooty hues. The dramatic aspect of the work, brilliantly stated, nevertheless never cancelled out the latent tenderness, or even a certain way with sardonic humour, which runs through scenes such as the theatrical performances in act 2. De Billy has chosen not to begin by exhausting himself, on the contrary the conceived “tempi” offer the voices the most fair and musical solutions possible. All in all, in this beautiful work he must offer rewards whenever he can.

As always, one cannot be indifferent to a production by Caurier and Leiser. Yet, does the work show a single purpose? Doubts are allowed. As usual the two accomplices weave a tangle of images which do not seek visual pleasure, driving towards the vision of “trash” and “gore” of an Ophélie, covered with blood, mutilating her breast in her madness. As often happens, the choir is abandoned to its sad fate (it’s simply ridiculous that, in the first act, the poor singers express their drunkenness by staggering with their arms in the air). Also, in a manner very familiar in Caurier and Leiser productions, the complete stage is cruelly badly lit (Gertrude is almost always invisible, shrouded in shadows in her duet with Claudius in Act 2.) Yet, the camera, used very intelligently here, reveals things that the audience in the auditorium, out of their depth in these images, could only imagine. Caurier and Leiser are first class directors of actors. You need to see the high intelligence of the mime scene in act 2; you must see the huge mobility of expression suggested by Uria-Monzon in her duet with Ophélie. Finally you must also see the way in which Dessay is able, in such a context, truly to be Ophélie to a point which is almost unbearable.

Dramatically revealed to itself in this way, the cast is not outdone, by having less than an excellent vocal distinction. We will pass rapidly over the Claudius of Vernhes, a great lord but incurably shaky, which made one regret the Van Dam and Ramey who preceded him. Giving Laërte, a tenor under used by Thomas, to a singer like Dannil Shtoda, with an emaciated timbre, lyricism stretched like a bow, could be taken as an absurdity, while waiting for a “secondo uomo” with a round, but also bright and sunny voice.  And yet, the personification, drowned by the mists of the North, works better than well and all reservations collapse before so much that is naturalistic. The ghost, Marcus Hollop, has at the same time the depth, the darkness and the fruitiness that one looks for in this “commander” and his royal phrasing tells all of his rank before he died. There is much to say of Béatrice Uria-Monzon, and not just vocally. Because her [vocal] production is sufficiently obstructed, her diction is not always impeccable, the musical line is broken, chopped by an almost excessive expressionist projection. But, it is a pleasure to let oneself be carried away by this rough, glowing timbre. What an experience also, is this high, proud and solemn, but at the same time rough, opulence.  Above all, what an exceptional embodiment: this figure of a mother stamped with blood, at the same time tender and base, imprisoned by her own infamy, a queen full of honour  and at the same time cunning, all these make it impossible to avoid dreams of Lady Macbeth and of Strauss’ Clytemnestra, which Uria-Monzon could quickly become.

Yet, if one could only keep one memory of this production, it would be that of the couple played by Simon Keenlyside and Natalie Dessay, Hamlet and Ophélie for all eternity. He has the wild presence, but also the childish anger which makes him a Hamlet of the first order. But above all is his lucid French, this chameleon projection which is capable of all the accents, from a rude or refined lyricism, to a clear and carrying projection, with held, fragile, semi-tints which give his performance credibility without weaknesses.

Natalie Dessay, who sang Ophélie from Geneva to Paris by way of Toulouse and London, seems to have arrived, in this production, at the end of a path of interpretation which identifies a total symbiosis [with the role].  No one could be left unmoved by the confrontation of her rare natural dramatic instinct with her hot tempered femininity flowing with humanity. Dessay has well understood that Ophélie is not one of these complex people, “between two waters” (even if the word game could seem accurate in such a context), who are used to contradictory feelings. The artist has caught the unyielding character of the heroine who holds onto the one word, “love”. It’s this love which leads her among the mysteries and all the pretences, from the radiant sunshine of act 1, to uncertainty, to doubt, to cracking in the following acts, right to the ultimate descent into madness. Her voice is modelled to the requirements of these different psychological aspects. The timbre of her voice has matured considerably in the past few years and in the future Dessay can offer the luxury of an Ophélie “from the land”, a true incarnation, showing thrilling clarity while suffering. The low pitched and the medium [tones] above all take on considerable weight, the love affair between these registers is sharpened, and if the high pitch is a little chopped, if it has lost its radiance and its incredible freedom, it also has gained humanity in quitting these stratospheric heights.  Now, Dessay has learned to live with this vocal evolution. She knows how to play at walking the tightrope of her talent; without safety wires, risking everything, playing with all the variations of “tempi”, with all the ways into her voice, singing in all these positions, and neither fearing to shriek nor fearing to make the most tiny murmur. At the very least one must see her howling in her despair in such a mad scene as one has seldom seen before (Callas included, and never in Hamlet). It surpasses everything that was done previously in terms of pure voice, shrivelling, a fragile, almost emaciated presence, setting new standards, with which one must reckon from now on.

So, this is a precious DVD which makes us understand everything which this new medium could want to say about a lyrical future, and which is clearly justified in its role as a witness. This is a violent production, strongly dramatic and for which the pictures are never redundant to the legacy of the sound. Finally it is brought to us by a, “primo cartello”, a couple of stars in the real meaning of the term, and it ends with a scene of madness, halucination and tenderness at the same time. In which the most intensive vocalism, realised as never before, leaves the spectator, haggard, and overcome by shivering. Without doubt this is the most complex production ever broadcast.

Opera Now, January/February 2005

Simon Keenlyside is the ideal enigmatic Hamlet; Natalie Dessay an enchanting Ophelia who seizes her opportunity to go mad with all she’s got. The smaller roles are well cast, Bertrand de Billy conducts as if Ambroise Thomas’s score is a masterpiece. Why then, did I find this production from Barcelona so unsatisfactory? The reason is the production itself, by Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser. Much of it takes place in settings so dark it is hard to make out what is going on; there is a difference between atmosphere and underlighting. And when we can see the semi-modern, semi-abstract sets, they have little to do with Elsinore or with creating any mood for the opera. The costumes are a strange mix of ancient and modern. Thomas’ music is attractive and atmospheric but hardly strong enough not to need help from the production and one is left thinking Shakespeare did it all rather better. But at least we have a record of Keenlyside and Dessay together, two majestic, powerful performances which deserve a better showcase.

Rodney Milnes, Opera, December 2005

This is the excellent Caurier-Leiser production in its third state, post Geneva and London, recorded in Barcelona in 2003. The sound is full and well-balanced, and the conducting more than capable, though the score doesn’t flow quite as easily as it did under Louis Langree at the ROH, and there are one or two moments of the sort of portentousness without which Thomas can very well do. The video realization is slightly disappointing, though it cannot have been easy given the darksome nature of the decor: the images grow fuzzy in such sparingly lit episodes as the play scene and that on the battlements.

This is unfortunate given the outstanding quality of three of the performances. Keenlyside and Dessay were by now fully inside their roles vocally and histrionically, both singing with much tonal variety and subtlety of nuance. Both are also exceptionally gifted actors, and bring extraordinary depth to their interpretations: with performances like this Thomas’s opera, for all its unevenness, for once seems not unworthy of its source. The uncomprehending pain Dessay brings to her second-act letter-reading Air, the arriere-pensee so clearly signalled in Keenlyside’s rejection of her in the masterly Nunnery trio, these have genuinely Shakespearian power.

Dessay just about manages to bring off the Mad Scene, potentially the one meretricious passage in the opera, though making this a private rather than a public scene still seems to me the only miscalculation on the producers’ part.

Uria-Monzon completes the trio of memorable interpretations with a hair-raisingly intense Gertrude, a role so well conceived – not least by Shakespeare – that it is hard to fail. The Closet scene is nigh-unwatchable.

Vemhes is a slightly anonymous Claudius, but his diction is ideally incisive, and Shtoda (odd casting!) makes as little of Laerte as the composer. Hollop’s Ghost is mercifully in much steadier voice than he was at Covent Garden. The small roles are all well taken.

Not a flawless issue, then, but there is little likelihood of another, and I cannot imagine the quality of the three central performances even being approached, let alone surpassed.

Bradley Winterton for the Taipei Times, 22 December 2005

“Ambroise Thomas’s Hamlet with Natalie Dessay and Simon Keenlyside [EMI 5 99447 9] is a revelation and exceptionally enjoyable.”

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