Ambroise Thomas’s Hamlet has riled and infuriated ever since its 1868 première, though for many it is merely an object of derision: one 1869 correspondent to the satirical magazine Punch admits not having seen the work but nevertheless disparages it as ‘Omelette’, a musical ‘burlesque’, and pillories Thomas’s fondness for drinking songs with the lines ‘To drink or not to drink? That is now the question / A glass of wine, I think, is good for the digestion’. Hamlet has however acquired its devotees, for whom the meaty title role and a more substantial part for Ophelia than in the play are too full of vocal highlights to ignore, and when the Metropolitan Opera staged the work in 2010 (the first time since 1897) the New York Times ran a spirited defence of Thomas, saying that mauling the Bard is nothing new and that the opera ‘generates its own theatrical frissons when placed in the right hands and treated sympathetically’.

Stéphane Degout (Hamlet) © Werner Kmetitsch
Stéphane Degout (Hamlet)
© Werner Kmetitsch

The recent talk of the town in Vienna has been how director Olivier Py has turned this opera into a theatrical must-see event, though in a somewhat different way than the Times suggests. There is no rehabilitation here, or much attempt to meet Thomas on his own terms, but rather simply the determined effort to put the Shakespeare back into Hamlet. Py has written an well-argued dramaturgical note which shows considerable insight into various aspects of the play, and yet his articulacy here, to my mind, does not find itself reflected in the images and direction he has come up with for the stage. His production may have its striking moments but taken as a whole I can’t say I found it too persuasive, or even coherent.

Pierre-André Weitz’s set is a black-bricked cellar dominated by steps raked to just below the fly space and I suppose the pyramid-like blocking in the first scene made some kind of point about hierarchy, although, like this production’s one other political element (the red flag of the Paris Commune makes several brief appearances), it didn’t really add up to much of a critique. As a rather dim figure who bumbles around tipsily, Claudius seemed more Falstaff than a murderous usurper, and as such only prompted the question of what exactly is rotten in Py’s state of Denmark.

A effort to probe Hamlet’s indetermination with blunt psychoanalytical tools also fell flat: there was here, in no particular order, some calm-looking self-harm, the fetishization of his father’s urn (the contents of which eventually came to grief via desktop fan), and the obsessive-compulsive moving of bricks from upstage to downstage. Regressing Hamlet to family bath time for his confrontation scene with his mother didn’t do anything apart from put a sponge-in-hand Gertrude in a maternal light, and one senses this was not Py’s aim. The idea that the doubles from the Gonzaga play should follow their characters around was promising, but Py decided to stop running with this as soon as it got interesting.

Despite the direction Stéphane Degout was a watchable Hamlet who, of this character’s many moods, decided to make something of his nonconformity. There was a blankness to his facial expression throughout and the acting here was quite subtle, but in the small Theater an der Wien one is never far away from the singers, and it worked. The rest of his character’s feelings he put into his singing, with touching sincerity and smooth phrasing. His voice isn’t big on baritonal heft but his power is focused and carries, and he has the firm top notes required for the role. His Ophélie, Christine Schäfer, didn’t fare quite so well in this production. We don’t see much of her until later in the opera, a weakness of Thomas’s dramaturgy which Py’s reworking might have addressed, though her stylized descent into a catatonic form of madness was one theatrically effective element of the staging. But what worked for the acting sounded underwhelming in the singing, which seemed rather disengaged in the mad scene, with each refrain in her aria overly white in tone. Schäfer is usually an accurate singer but in this performance sounded a little insecure, with her coloratura far from perfect. Philip Ens, announced as ill but prepared to perform anyway, actually sounded in fairly good voice, his resonant low notes one much-needed indication that his Claudius possesses at least some authority. With not a great deal of presence from the two leads, the show was left for Stella Grigorian (Gertrude) to steal, and of all the acting, singing, and characters, hers was the most Shakespearian.

Marc Minkowski gave the score possibly the best advocacy it’s going to get this side of Paris, and the Wiener Symphoniker’s playing was committed and full of detail. With the Arnold Schoenberg Chor one runs out of superlatives: their French, phrasing and ensemble were all quite immaculate.