A Decidedly French ‘Hamlet’ Returns to Paris

Starting in March at the Opéra Bastille, Ambroise Thomas’s version of the Shakespearean tragedy will be revived at the Paris Opera for the first time since 1938.

An engraving depicting a performance of Ambroise Thomas’s “Hamlet” at the Paris Opera in 1875. The Shakespearean adaptation was one of many “grands opéras” written specifically for the company.
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Ambroise Thomas’s “Hamlet” had all the elements to become a blockbuster at the Paris Opera in the 19th century. With a gripping plot that unfolds over five acts, a leading baritone in the title role and innovative orchestration deploying newly invented instruments, the work had an enduring hold at the box office after its 1868 premiere.

Like so many “grands opéras” that were born and bred for the company, “Hamlet” fell out of repertoire around the turn of the 20th century. Only since the 1980s has the work received a revival on stages worldwide. From March 11 to April 9, Thomas’s Shakespearean adaptation will return to the Paris Opera for the first time since 1938, in a new production directed by Krzysztof Warlikowski and starring Ludovic Tézier at the Opéra Bastille (a pre-opening for viewers under 28 takes place on March 8. Thomas Hengelbrock conducts).

The company’s general director, Alexander Neef, has made it a goal to create a more specific identity for the Paris Opera by commissioning research and programming the French grand opera that once flourished there. Having experienced and admired a production of “Hamlet” at the Metropolitan Opera some 20 years ago, Mr. Neef said that the work “came up rather naturally” after his appointment.

Mr. Tézier, whom he considers “not only the leading French baritone but maybe the leading baritone in his repertoire,” was also a natural choice. The singer, who is particularly coveted in the music of Verdi, in turn suggested Mr. Warlikowski as director following their collaboration on a 2017 production of Verdi’s “Don Carlos” at Opéra Bastille.

For both lead performer and director, the production provides an opportunity to deepen their interpretation of a work that has played an important role in their respective careers. Mr. Tézier made debuts in both Toulouse, France, and Turin, Italy, in the title of role of Thomas’s “Hamlet” about two decades ago, while Mr. Warlikowski staged the original play by Shakespeare in Avignon, France in 2000 (he had first learned the drama as an apprentice of the late director Peter Brook in Paris).

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This operatic version of “Hamlet” takes an unexpected turn before the curtain falls: The protagonist survives and is crowned king. The liberties taken by Thomas’s librettists, Michel Carré and Jules Barbier, met with criticism after the premiere; a Covent Garden version of the opera first mounted in 1869 restores the work’s original, more tragic ending.

For Mr. Warlikowski, Thomas’s protagonist shares a great deal in common with the mythological figure of Orestes. “He also rebels against hypocrisy and the ills of this world,” he explained on a video call.

The director will also hone in on the scenes in which the ghost of Hamlet’s father appears. “For me, the essential thing that clinches the drama is of course the apparition of the specter,” he said.

Mr. Tézier noted that Thomas deployed some of his most dramatically effective music for the ghost by knowing how to pare down the orchestra. The baritone drew a parallel to another Shakespearean opera, Verdi’s “Macbeth,” and the title character’s hallucination of a dagger.

“Thomas creates an atmosphere that is favorable to the text and the emotion of the moment,” he said by phone.

The composer was exploring orchestral colors with new instruments by the musician and inventor Adolphe Sax at the same time as the composer Hector Berlioz, who held Thomas in great esteem. For example, the second-act banquet scene in which Hamlet accuses Claudius of murdering his father features a solo for alto saxophone. Thomas also wrote for bass saxhorn and six-keyed trombones.

An ardent defender of French music against Germanic influence (specifically that of Wagner), Thomas in 1877 stated that every country “should stay faithful to its style and maintain its distinct character,” rather than submit “to the caprices of the time.” In a sign of his patriotism, he volunteered for the National Guard during the Franco-Prussian War before assuming the directorship of the Paris Conservatory in 1871.

His “Hamlet” has been noted for its specifically French qualities. In addition to mitigating tragedy by allowing the protagonist to survive and avenge the death of his father, romantic intrigue and sensuous instrumentation often set the tone.

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Paris was at the time the center of classical musical life, not just in Europe but worldwide. “Hamlet” premiered at Salle Le Peletier, the same theater that mounted such works as Giacomo Meyerbeer’s “Robert le Diable” and Wagner’s “Tannhäuser” before Palais Garnier opened in 1875.

The baritone Jean-Baptiste Faure, who was at the height of his fame, was captured in portrait as Hamlet by none other than Manet. The role of Ophélie, whose fourth-act mad scene helped ensure the work’s popularity, has also been an important role for sopranos from Christina Nilsson to Mary Garden (the new production stars Lisette Oropesa and, starting in April, Brenda Rae).

But by 1891, Wagner’s “music of the future” became something of a game changer. “Lohengrin,” “Die Walküre” and “Tannhäuser” remained in repertoire at the Paris Opera through 1910, while of Meyerbeer’s four major operas, only “Les Huguenots” persisted.

Mr. Warlikowski expressed his wish to champion “Hamlet” by “provoking questions and creating a spiritual journey through this timeless story.”

Mr. Tézier emphasized that the work was not “second-rate.”

“It most of all allows the audience to spend a night in the opera in a state of suspense and meditation,” he said.

He compared the infrequent programming of such neglected classics to the unpredictable sightings of the Loch Ness monster: “There is no real explanation. But with each appearance of the monster, you have to see it because it’s a rarity. From the beginning to the end, something really happens in the music.”