Though a highly popular work through the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Ambroise Thomas’ operatic version of Hamlet last played in Barcelona in 2003. It was a welcome return for this romantic lyric drama in the Grand Opéra style, albeit for just two concert performances, Diana Damrau (Ophélie) and Carlos Álvarez (Hamlet) in the lead roles.

Diana Damrau
© A. Bofill

The influence of Berlioz and Wagner are clear in Thomas’ exploitation of leitmotifs and his use of particular instruments in highlighting the musical narrative, such as the cor anglais’ brooding accompaniment to Hamlet’s famous soliloquy “To be or not to be” in Act 3 and the surprising incorporation of the then recently invented baritone saxophone providing melodic backing for the theatrical piece ‘Death of Gonzague’ in Act 2, that leads to the downfall of the fratricidal Claudius.

Under Daniel Oren’s baton, the theatre’s orchestra gave an enthusiastic performance of Thomas’ lavish score. The opera has moments of inspired melody and sensitivity and Oren conducted with consistent energy, offsetting the vocal set pieces with complementary interludes well. This being a fairly staid concert format, he provided visual relief through expressive gesticulation. A 70-strong chorus gave thunderous vocal support, with Oren having to exert firm control over the eager and at times assertive vocal ensemble.

Hamlet is both a complex dramatic character and a demanding baritone role, requiring the singer to express disparate emotions: indecision, paused contemplation, angry hysteria and (feigned) madness. Carlos Álvarez’s vocal characterisation was an exhibition of technique, projection and dramatic expression, offering a rich rendition of “O vin, dissipe ma tristesse!” and an intense “Être ou ne pas être”. His lush timbre and higher range tessitura suited the role perfectly and coupled with powerful projection made for a memorable, well-paced performance of the protagonist.

Ophélie is over-represented in Thomas’ operatic version but allows a lyric soprano a dramatic role in parallel with the great operatic heroines of the time. Although Diana Damrau sang with clear range and with accomplished coloratura, she seemed to work harder in the higher register and had some issues with vocal stamina, stretching the credibility needed for this adolescent character of nervous fragility. Her Act 4 Mad Scene from recitative to aria was superbly performed, Oren working the orchestra in “piano” to complement the character’s delirious introspection at this point.

Carlos Álvarez
© A. Bofill

The Swiss mezzo-soprano Eva-Maud Hubeaux sang a fine Getrude with a spectacular duet in Act 3 the highlight of her performance. Technically impressive, with a convincing stage presence and powerful projection, she was a vigorous complement to Álvarez’s incensed Hamlet. Nicolas Testé produced the deeply resonant projection needed for a convincing Claudius but it was clear he was more comfortable in the mid and low registers for his role. Ivo Stanchev sang flawlessly and with vocal gravitas as a convincing ghost. Thomas’ score reduces the melodrama surrounding the character and Stanchev had to sing the monotonal part with the difficult task of injecting some expression without the help of staging. The tenor Celso Albelo sang the minor role of Laertes, impressing with his clarity and projection.

The remaining cast members were all excellent in their interpretations and performances with clear vocal personality, especially Carlos Daza and Josep Fadó as the gravediggers in Act 5, Rubén Amoretti, whose deep bass lent Polonius notable stage presence and Enric Martínez-Castignani as Horatio, a limited role for this talented baritone. With the exception of Hubeaux and Testé, both native French speakers, pronunciation was problematic at times in this original version and with an international cast. The chorus’ diction was at times blurred.

With the Parisian audience and contemporaries in mind, Thomas took a pragmatic approach to the composition of the work, based on a libretto that simplified Shakespeare’s original. The composer was said to have had problems finding a tenor to sing the title role and had to drop the part to baritone, which was premiered and sung to great acclaim by Jean-Baptiste Faure. After its subsequent success, Hamlet became a sought after role. Carlos Álvarez gave his Hamlet virtuosic vocality.