Ambroise Thomas

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4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Ambroise Thomas
WORKS: Hamlet
PERFORMER: Thomas Hampson, June Anderson, Samuel Ramey, Denyce Graves, Gregory Kunde, François Le Roux Ambrosian Singers; London Philharmonic/Antonio de Almeida
Those who recall the splendid 1980 Buxton Festival resurrection of Hamlet or who own Decca’s Sutherland/Milnes/Bonynge recording will know what a hugely enjoyable work it is, certainly undeserving of the neglect it suffers in the contemporary repertoire and the critical scorn meted out to it. First performed at the Paris Opera in 1868, it reached London the following year. In Opera Grove Elizabeth Forbes says it was a ‘considerable success’, but in her note for this new recording, she says it only mustered one performance – despite the presence of Sir Charles Santley in the title part – because it was considered a travesty of Shakespeare, and boring. When you consider the bowdlerisation of the Bard by the Victorians that hardly seems possible. Nor is the music dull: try the wonderfully atmospheric scene in which Hamlet encounters his father’s ghost. Indeed, apart from the ‘happy’ ending, the sympathetic treatment of Gertrude and the more overtly romantic relationship between the prince and Ophelia, Barbier and Carré’s text is surprisingly faithful to the original. Anticipating problems in London, Thomas even prepared a finale in which Hamlet expires – the so-called ‘Covent Garden’ version, though it was never performed there. EMI includes it in an appendix containing the ballet and a duet for Claudius and Gertrude. Almeida conducts the score complete – a first – so ardent Thomasians will have to buy this set. In any case, it is sung by a more youthful cast than the Decca. Hampson is a model lyric baritone stylist with excellent French as Hamlet, Anderson sparkles brilliantly in her famous Mad Scene (her high notes will possibly be too ‘French’ for some tastes) and there is superb support from Ramey as the usurper, Gregory Kunde as Laërte, and Le Roux as Horatio. Graves’s Gertrude is blowsy, but still preferable to her awful Decca counterpart. Almeida obviously knows and loves this music and the LPO plays it with flair and panache. Hugh Canning