«Être ou ne pas être…» What's this? Hamlet in French? With an ending where the Prince lives and is crowned king? Sacré bleu ! Ambroise Thomas' operatic take on Shakespeare has always taken a bit of a bashing from the English. The composer even wrote an alternative ending for Covent Garden where Hamlet dies, so as not to upset the natives. But the Pall Mall Gazette critic still poured scorn: “No one but a barbarian or a Frenchman would have dared to make such a lamentable burlesque of so tragic a theme as Hamlet.” Yet as Cyril Teste's intense new production at the Opéra Comique demonstrates, Hamlet contains plenty of fine music, especially when performed by such exceptional singers as Stéphane Degout and Sabine Devieilhe.

Sabine Devieilhe (Ophélie) and Stéphane Degout (Hamlet) © Vincent Pontet
Sabine Devieilhe (Ophélie) and Stéphane Degout (Hamlet)
© Vincent Pontet

The “happy ending” is all Harriet Smithson's fault! Paris fell in love with the Irish actress' Ophelia in 1827... and Hector Berlioz fell head over heels in love with Smithson herself (direct inspiration for his psychodramatic Symphonie fantastique). Also among that audience was Alexandre Dumas who found the performance “far surpassing all my expectations”. Dumas later prepared a new French translation of Hamlet, in collaboration with Paul Meurice, first performed at Dumas' Théâtre Historique in 1847. It was rather a free adaptation, especially at the end, where the ghost of Hamlet's father reappears and condemns the dying Claudius, Gertrude and Laertes. When Hamlet, wounded, asks: «Et quel châtiment m'attend donc ?» (“And what punishment awaits me?”), the ghost replies: «Tu vivras !» (“You shall live!”), as the curtain falls. It was this version of Hamlet – the version most Parisians knew – that Michel Carré and Jules Barbier understandably chose as the basis of their libretto for Thomas' opera, which eventually premiered at the Salle Le Peletier in 1868. After enjoying great success, the opera's fortunes largely died in the 20th century until a revival of interest in the 1980s, but it's still rarely performed.

Stéphane Degout (Hamlet) and Jérôme Varnier (Le Spectre) © Vincent Pontet
Stéphane Degout (Hamlet) and Jérôme Varnier (Le Spectre)
© Vincent Pontet

The Opéra Comique specialises in reviving such French rarities, but that doesn't mean it relies on dusty period stagings. Great Shakespeare will always strike a chord with today's society and Cyril Teste places Hamlet firmly in the here and now. His modern dress production makes enormous use of video technology to get up close and personal, a cameraman tracking the action, beamed onto sliding panels. Claudius makes his grand entrance through the Stalls – there were presidential election-style photos as slips in the programme – and the Ghost sits plumb in the centre of Row G, from where he reveals the truth of his murder to Hamlet. It's very busy and aggressive, stage crew constantly shifting props, but the extreme close-ups allows the audience to get behind the mask of the singers: Ophélie's mascara running as she goes on a bender in the Comique's bar; Hamlet aghast at being crowned king. The “Murder of Gonzago” play-within-a-play benefits from being able to see the horrified reactions of Claudius and Gertrude as they recognise Hamlet has uncovered their secret. How apt, in this scene, to have the eerie saxophone solo performed from the stage as part of the action.

Stéphane Degout (Hamlet) and Sabine Devieilhe (Ophélie) © Vincent Pontet
Stéphane Degout (Hamlet) and Sabine Devieilhe (Ophélie)
© Vincent Pontet

Thomas struggled to find singers strong enough to take on the two main roles. In 1867 he was impressed by Swedish soprano Christine Nilsson and altered the part of Ophélie for her. And for Hamlet – initially designated a tenor role – he transposed the part for baritone Jean-Baptiste Faure, who had just triumphed as Posa in Verdi's Don Carlos. The composer would surely have marvelled at the two singers engaged here. Stéphane Degout was terrific in the title role (history repeating itself – like Faure, Degout sang Posa last season). After decades where the main champions of the role have been anglophone – Sherrill Milnes, Thomas Allen, Thomas Hampson, Simon Keenlyside – it's wonderful to have such a powerful French advocate. Degout's baritone draws on dark colouring, yet has enough blade to scythe through the upper reaches of his Chanson bachique «Ô vin, dissipe la tristesse». He's a terrific actor too, video close-ups of his eyes alone telling their own story.

Sabine Devieilhe (Ophélie) © Vincent Pontet
Sabine Devieilhe (Ophélie)
© Vincent Pontet

Devieilhe was superb, with all the crisp coloratura and pristine top notes one could wish for. The diminutive soprano convinced as the infatuated teenager leaping around her bedroom, and her demise into madness was heartbreaking, backed by slow-motion footage of turbulent waves and, later, herself tumbling into the water.

The supporting cast were reliable, Sylvie Brunet-Grupposo's Gertrude wracked by guilt, Julien Behr's Laërte slightly pinched at the top, Laurent Alvaro's bass a bit woolly as Claudius. Chœur Les éléments made a terrific impact though, as did the Orchestre des Champs-Élysées under the excellent direction of Louis Langrée, the brass especially pungent.

As the Bard wrote: a hit, a very palpable hit.

****1