Hamlet

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barney
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Hamlet

Post by barney » Sat Nov 04, 2017 8:25 pm

In researching about Brett Dean's new opera, Hamlet (a triumph at Glyndebourne in June), I came across this delightful article. I thought I should share it. It was in the Guardian on June 6, though I can't find it by Google now.

Guardian June 8 2017 Bill Barclay

There have been 40 operas based on Hamlet written since 1812 alone. How many of them can you name?

Exactly.

Where are the Hamlets in the standard opera repertoire? The greatest play ever written lacks a single great operatic counterpart. Surely Shakespeare’s tragedy provides everything a composer could ever need: strong central characters, a rich poetic tapestry, existential dilemmas, revenge, murder and the best mad scene in the business. A producer, too, can tick several boxes: a built-in audience of Shakespeare fans, a great sword fight, a ghost, splashes of comedy and a big moody design. It’s a perfect excuse to spend an outrageous amount of money.

Is there something in the play that somehow resists operatic treatment?
So why haven’t they stuck? Could they possibly all be bad? Might Verdi be to blame for never having got round to it? Or is there something in the play that somehow resists operatic treatment?

Buffs will find this reductionist autopsy a trifle unfair. Since the 1990s, Ambroise Thomas’s 1868 French grand opera has seen an uptick of interest (in spite of Hamlet surviving to be crowned king of Denmark at the end). Thomas’s work is certainly the standout of the pack, and musically it is sumptuous and surprising. Yet its mangling of Shakespeare is universally mocked, and revivals have all but required a Simon Keenlyside or Thomas Hampson to act as its champion, claiming a juicy unsung role that’s free to interpret, precisely because of its rarity.

The puzzle is somewhat exacerbated by coincidence. Opera began around 1600 with either Jacopo Peri’s Dafne in Florence in 1597 or Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo in Mantua 10 years later, depending on your proclivity for pretentiousness. Hamlet was written between 1599 and 1602. Clearly, travel was an off-putting experience 400 years ago, and yet within 10 years of its creation, Hamlet had been performed in Poland, Holland, Germany, and even on a boat off the coast of Sierra Leone. So Hamlet and opera are both about 417 years old this year, and in spite of all they have endured, both still show remarkable signs of life. Don’t they deserve to be happy together at last?

Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, and even Haydn, have all had a go at composing incidental music for it
An impressive list of composers have sized up the challenge, only to give up the ghost. Verdi, Bizet, Berlioz, Glinka, Debussy, Mendelssohn, Prokofiev, Respighi and Schumann debated setting Hamlet, only to decide it was not to be. In the theatre, history shows that before donning his inky cloak, the great actor du jour would ask the greatest musical mind in town to compose the requisite incidental music. Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, and even Haydn, all had a go. Some of this music is lost, but what remains often frustrates. No composer had a palpable hit with Hamlet. Tchaikovsky’s concert overture comes close, although the Ophelia theme almost precisely traces the opening measures of the jazz standard, Autumn Leaves. It’s not his fault, but it doesn’t help.

The last century saw gristlier modernists tackle iterations of the play text: Kurtág, Honegger, Birtwistle, Maxwell Davies, Cage and Shostakovich again, all to support different incarnations for the concert hall or playhouse – even more for the screen. William Walton did his job admirably for Olivier’s film, but his music was noticeably stronger in Henry V. And yet after their brush with the bard, precisely none of these minds were sufficiently bug-bitten to extend their genius to a fully operatic Hamlet.

Many simply chose a different play. Since his elevation to mythic status sometime in the late 18th century, Shakespeare seems to have ghosted his way through all the great musical minds except Mozart’s. Beethoven once began sketches for a Macbeth. Wagner, of all the plays from which to choose, set Measure for Measure. Walton chose Troilus and Cressida; Berlioz, Much Ado About Nothing; and Barber, Antony and Cleopatra. Unbelievably, The Merry Wives of Windsor has succeeded in opera where Hamlet has failed. What’s the beef?

Shakespeare seems to have ghosted his way through all the great musical minds except Mozart
It’s true that the canon of regularly produced operas doesn’t number very many. It has, however, increased in recent years on the back of adventurous programming, yet operas inspired by Shakespeare still form a small subset of perhaps a dozen standard works: Verdi’s trio of masterpieces (Falstaff, Otello, and Macbeth), Britten’s Dream, a pair of Romeo and Juliets, and only some of the works mentioned above. Time will tell if Aribert Reimann’s Lear, Ryan Wigglesworth’s The Winter’s Tale or Thomas Adès’s The Tempest remain in the hearts and minds of subscribers and artists. Indeed, we may all have a role to play to see that they do. Perhaps the seismic financial economy of opera and its attendant risk aversion are the unwilling culprits for Hamlet’s ignominious exclusion.

The Shakespeare 450 celebrations in 2014 were an excellent excuse to rediscover some of these operas, among them Franco Faccio’s forgotten 1865 Amleto that brings with it a clue to our Hamlet conundrum. An appealing (if slightly square) musical setting, it features the first Shakespeare libretto by Arrigo Boito, Verdi’s future collaborator on Otello and Falstaff. We learn that its premiere was promising, though revivals were paused while Faccio and Boito joined the Italian army. But then tragedy struck: at the La Scala revival in 1871, star tenor Mario Tiberini fell severely ill, tried to struggle on, but consequently gave a disastrous and incoherent performance. Traumatised by the fiasco, Faccio withdrew the score, which went unseen for nearly 150 years until its reincarnation in 2014 in the Albuquerque Journal Theater of the National Hispanic Cultural Center in New Mexico.


Verdi, who had harboured hopes for years to set Hamlet, felt beaten to the punch by the younger Faccio, and the whole episode scuttled his plans. He wrote to librettist Giulio Carcano: “Now, if King Lear is difficult, Hamlet is even more so … I do not give up all hope, however, that one day I can get together with you and work on this masterpiece of the English theatre.”

We heed the master when he gives himself pause. WH Auden felt it was difficult for characters in opera to be seen as good and bad – intentions are simplified and faultlines writ much larger. But these are the trappings of the opera of the past. Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Lear are brilliant characters, in part because they’re simultaneously cruel and charismatic, and require us to wrestle with the inherent hypocrisy in our human nature. Gerald Finley’s J Robert Oppenheimer in John Adams’s opera Doctor Atomic is an immensely complex figure. And, in her most recent work, Only the Sound Remains, Kaija Saariaho has confirmed that an entire operatic career today can be built on fluid psychologies that oscillate freely between conflicting emotions, sometimes in the same bar. Perhaps the form is finally ready for its pressure.


Strolling calmly into this frame is Australian composer Brett Dean. A violist by trade, his first opera, Bliss, carefully prioritised the comprehension of novelist Peter Carey’s text, without sacrificing the composer’s clustered orchestral language. It is too early to gauge whether Bliss will survive its inaugural hoopla to enter the global mainstream. But the sheer torrent of Dean performances around the world today attest to his increasing relevance and importance in the context of the post-minimalists such as Adams, major contemporary figures such as Adès and George Benjamin, and a bulging class of young breakouts including Nico Muhly, Mark Simpson, and even the 12-year-old Alma Deutscher.

Dean has at his side singers Barbara Hannigan and Allan Clayton, and director Neil Armfield, each an ideal advocate for new work and fresh horizons. The rough textual editing that opera requires can hardly shock more than some of today’s aggressively pruned Shakespeare adaptations for the English stage, to say nothing of works in translation the world over. Opera, like theatre, is always rumoured to be dying, yet it has managed against the odds to not only survive but measurably evolve in recent years. Perhaps the moment has arrived for Hamlet to meet his musical match.

Bill Barclay is head of music at Shakespeare’s Globe and author of Shakespeare, Music, and Performance (Cambridge University Press).

jbuck919
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Re: Hamlet

Post by jbuck919 » Sat Nov 04, 2017 9:34 pm

Very interesting, but to my mind a musical setting of the greatest play ever written could be nothing other than a travesty. I can forgive Macbeth or even Othello because the operas are so great, but Hamlet? No, I'm just as happy I have never heard any of these. (I'm also reminded of an Anna Russel act called Hamletto, overo Prosciutino.)

In terms of settings of the music, of which there is none in Hamlet, the original music for The Tempest survives. (It was published in the Oxford Anthology.) Unfortunately, I cannot find it on YouTube. As we enter the cold season here in the North Country, I will repost this performance of a miraculous song from As You Like It, set by John Rutter, and performed enthusiastically by a high school choir.


There's nothing remarkable about it. All one has to do is hit the right keys at the right time and the instrument plays itself.
-- Johann Sebastian Bach

barney
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Re: Hamlet

Post by barney » Sun Nov 05, 2017 4:57 pm

Yes, it is indeed a lovely setting, and one which I did not know, so thank you.
The Gondwana Choir is an Australian group.

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Re: Hamlet

Post by jbuck919 » Sun Nov 05, 2017 6:06 pm

barney wrote:
Sun Nov 05, 2017 4:57 pm
Yes, it is indeed a lovely setting, and one which I did not know, so thank you.
The Gondwana Choir is an Australian group.
Yes, I thought you would appreciate that. :)

There's nothing remarkable about it. All one has to do is hit the right keys at the right time and the instrument plays itself.
-- Johann Sebastian Bach

lennygoran
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Re: Hamlet

Post by lennygoran » Sun Nov 05, 2017 8:18 pm

barney wrote:
Sat Nov 04, 2017 8:25 pm
There have been 40 operas based on Hamlet written since 1812 alone.
Barney we saw this opera and it was a wonderful Hamlet experience! Regards, Len :D

http://www.operade.org/hamlet/

John F
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Re: Hamlet

Post by John F » Mon Nov 06, 2017 12:35 am

Verdi never seriously considered composing a "Hamlet." In 1849, the year of "Luisa Miller," he began work on a "King Lear" and asked his librettist Piave for a libretto which became "Rigoletto" or one based on "Stradella" or "Kean." At the same time he made a list of other possible subjects. From Mary Jane Phillips-Matz's biography:
Mary Jane Phillips-Matz wrote:It includes "Hamlet" and "The Tempest," Byron's "Cain," Hugo's "Marion Delorme" and "Ruy Blas," Grillparzer's "Die Ahnfrau," Racine's "Phedre," Calderon's "A secreto agravio segreto venganza," Dennery's "Marie Jeanne ou La Femme du peuple," Chateaubriand's "Atala," which Verdi spelled with two ts, "Guzman el Bueno" by Moratin, "Ines di Castro," "Buondelmonte," and other works.
What this crazily varied list has in common is that Verdi never asked Piave or any other writer for a libretto, let alone composed a note of music. In 1850 he was offered a "Hamlet" libretto by his close friend Giulio Carcano, who was translating the complete works of Shakespeare into Italian; he had been sending his translations to Verdi who discussed them with him. He wrote to Carcano declining the offer:
Verdi wrote:Alas, these great subjects take too much time and for the present I've even had to give up "King Lear" after having commissioned Cammarano to prepare a libretto, for a more suitable occasion. If "King Lear" is difficult "Hamlet" is still more so. With two pressing commitments on my hands I've had to choose subjects which are shorter and easier so as to fulfill my obligations. However, I won't give up hope of our being able one day to get together with you and treat this masterpiece of the English stage.
"One day" never arrived, and I take the last sentence as a friendly gesture rather than a serious intention. Verdi seems never to have brought up the subject again, with Carcano or anyone else, even much later when he had plenty of time. As for Faccio's "Amleto," with its libretto by Boito, I don't know where Barclay got the idea that it "scuttled" Verdi's "plans." It was premiered in 1865 and, as revised, was performed at La Scala in 1871, long after Verdi last mentioned "Hamlet" as a possible operatic subject. Then, despite Faccio's prestige as a conductor - he conducted the premiere of Verdi's "Otello" - the opera received no more performances for 130 years. Nor was Verdi put off "Otello" by Rossini's famous and successful opera, or "Falstaff" by Nicolai's popular "Merry Wives of Windsor." Where Verdi is concerned, Barclay is trying to make a brick without straw.

As he says, many composers have created "Hamlet" operas, and at least one of these, by Ambroise Thomas in 1868, was very popular for half a century. It has since fallen from favor partly because of its happy ending with Hamlet proclaimed king, standard in those days but unacceptable now, and partly because most of French Romantic opera is seldom performed nowadays. Many other great plays have failed to gain Verdi-level popularity as operas, including most of ancient Greek tragedy; for that matter, the number of really popular Shakespeare operas is not large. To ask why seems to me pretty futile because unanswerable. After all, it's not for lack of trying.
John Francis

barney
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Re: Hamlet

Post by barney » Mon Nov 06, 2017 4:47 pm

lennygoran wrote:
Sun Nov 05, 2017 8:18 pm
barney wrote:
Sat Nov 04, 2017 8:25 pm
There have been 40 operas based on Hamlet written since 1812 alone.
Barney we saw this opera and it was a wonderful Hamlet experience! Regards, Len :D

http://www.operade.org/hamlet/
Fascinating Len. One of the 40 I'd never heard of, though JohnF also writes about it.

Belle
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Re: Hamlet

Post by Belle » Mon Nov 06, 2017 4:52 pm

I knew him, Barney. A man of infinite jest and fancy. He hath borne me on his back a thousand times!!

barney
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Re: Hamlet

Post by barney » Mon Nov 06, 2017 4:53 pm

I came across the Barclay article while preparing to interview Brett Dean, whose Hamlet was widely acclaimed at Glyndebourne in June. I also spoke to the director, Neil Armfield, who was involved even before the libretto was begun, so it's really a tripartite project. Armfield also directed a famous (in Australia) stage Hamlet in the early 1990s with a fantastic cast.
Obviously I haven't got room to go into detail. Perhaps I'll post the article after it appears. But I was interested to learn that about 20% of the play is in the opera. Dean and the Canadian librettist read through the First Quarto version together, and it took five hours. One hour of spoken text equates to two and a half hours of sung text. They have kept most of the famous lines, and the text is entirely Shakespeare, but some of the lines are attributed to different characters.

barney
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Re: Hamlet

Post by barney » Mon Nov 06, 2017 4:54 pm

Belle wrote:
Mon Nov 06, 2017 4:52 pm
I knew him, Barney. A man of infinite jest and fancy. He hath borne me on his back a thousand times!!
:D Very good!

John F
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Re: Hamlet

Post by John F » Mon Nov 06, 2017 5:42 pm

The First Quarto is the short "Hamlet." (Also the most corrupt text: "To be, or not to be, I there's the point.") I've seen a performance of the uncut standard version and it ran about 4 1/2 hours at a pretty fast pace. Of course singing plus the orchestral bits take far longer than speaking the play; 20% sounds right.
John Francis

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Re: Hamlet

Post by jbuck919 » Mon Nov 06, 2017 8:16 pm

John F wrote:
Mon Nov 06, 2017 5:42 pm
The First Quarto is the short "Hamlet." (Also the most corrupt text: "To be, or not to be, I there's the point.") I've seen a performance of the uncut standard version and it ran about 4 1/2 hours at a pretty fast pace. Of course singing plus the orchestral bits take far longer than speaking the play; 20% sounds right.
The bad quarto is entirely hilarious. I can remember rolling on the floor laughing in college when a grad student read out the famous soliloquy (for that purpose, to make us laugh). It was obviously pirated. You can find the text of the soliloquy online, and I am only not posting it here because I had a little trouble with the copy and paste.

There's nothing remarkable about it. All one has to do is hit the right keys at the right time and the instrument plays itself.
-- Johann Sebastian Bach

barney
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Re: Hamlet

Post by barney » Tue Nov 07, 2017 2:56 am

It may be that I got the version wrong. A journalist making a mistake? Highly unlikely, surely. :D I didn't check my notes before posting.

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Re: Hamlet

Post by jbuck919 » Tue Nov 07, 2017 3:37 am

OK I have it, and I'm still laughing myself silly over it.

To be, or not to be, Ay there's the point,
To Die, to sleep, is that all? Aye all:
No, to sleep, to dream, aye marry there it goes,
For in that dream of death, when we awake,
And borne before an everlasting Judge,
From whence no passenger ever returned,
The undiscovered country, at whose sight
The happy smile, and the accursed damn'd.
But for this, the joyful hope of this,
Who'd bear the scorns and flattery of the world,
Scorned by the right rich, the rich cursed of the poor?
The widow being oppressed, the orphan wrong'd,
The taste of hunger, or a tyrants reign,
And thousand more calamities besides,
To grunt and sweat under this weary life,
When that he may his full Quietus make,
With a bare bodkin, who would this endure,
But for a hope of something after death?
Which puzzles the brain, and doth confound the sense,
Which makes us rather bear those evils we have,
Than fly to others that we know not of.
Aye that, O this conscience makes cowards of us all,
Lady in thy orizons, be all my sins remembered.[3][4]

There's nothing remarkable about it. All one has to do is hit the right keys at the right time and the instrument plays itself.
-- Johann Sebastian Bach

John F
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Re: Hamlet

Post by John F » Tue Nov 07, 2017 6:18 am

There are two reasons the first quarto is so different from the "Hamlet" we know. The experts think it's pirated, as you say - written down from memory by an actor in a minor role or a member of the audience. But they also believed it's based on a different, earlier version of Shakespeare's play, since lost and superseded by the versions in the second (good) quarto and then the first folio. (The "standard" version conflates those two sources; that's why it's so long.) Shakespeare's play is believed to be based in turn on a still earlier "Hamlet" by Thomas Kyd, also lost.

All this is beside the point of barney's thread, but as usual in a CMG thread, one thing leads to another. :)
John Francis

jbuck919
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Re: Hamlet

Post by jbuck919 » Tue Nov 07, 2017 7:47 am

I am aware that Hamlet, the longest play ever written, is a conflation of sources, but it does work that way. I would not know what to cut for it to make sense in a modern performance. Give me that man that is not passion’s slave, and I will wear him in my heart’s core, ay, in my heart of heart, as I do thee.

There's nothing remarkable about it. All one has to do is hit the right keys at the right time and the instrument plays itself.
-- Johann Sebastian Bach

John F
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Re: Hamlet

Post by John F » Tue Nov 07, 2017 8:47 am

"Hamlet" is almost always cut in performance; the complete conflated version is seldom done. The cuts vary from one director and production to the next, and I don't suppose any of these acting versions have been published. Exceptions are Peter Brook's drastically shortened version, about two hours, which he titled "The Tragedy of Hamlet" to distinguish it. And then there's Tom Stoppard's "Fifteen Minute Hamlet" and, as an encore, a 2-minute version.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PabPyPEBvYU&t=85s
John Francis

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Re: Hamlet

Post by diegobueno » Tue Nov 07, 2017 9:04 am

A number of clips from Brett Dean's Hamlet can be found on Youtube. Here is one of them. It seems to me that most of the musical interest is in the orchestra.


jbuck919
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Re: Hamlet

Post by jbuck919 » Tue Nov 07, 2017 10:29 am

Then there's this, which I heard live because I happened to be the performer's son's teacher.


There's nothing remarkable about it. All one has to do is hit the right keys at the right time and the instrument plays itself.
-- Johann Sebastian Bach

barney
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Re: Hamlet

Post by barney » Tue Nov 07, 2017 4:53 pm

I checked my notes: Dean and Jocelyn read through the "standard first folio version". Cutting it was obviously one of the most daunting aspects. Separately the composer, librettist and director listed the six "moments" they thought most important, then the next six, and compared them.
Re orchestra being the most important, I haven't heard any Hamlet yet - so thanks for the links. Dean put six singers in with the orchestra in the pit, as well as the cast on stage and elsewhere.
I've transcribed my interview - several thousand words over 90 minutes (he was characteristically generous with his time). It was quite fascinating to hear Brett expound on the challenges, the solutions, what he learnt from his first opera (Bliss).

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Re: Hamlet

Post by John F » Tue Nov 07, 2017 10:43 pm

Thanks for the further information. The first folio "Hamlet" omits some famous passages, such as Hamlet's soliloquy "How all occasions do inform against me," so it's not really the standard version in the theatre; that is a combination of the first folio and second quarto texts.
John Francis

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Re: Hamlet

Post by Belle » Tue Nov 07, 2017 11:46 pm

John F wrote:
Tue Nov 07, 2017 10:43 pm
Thanks for the further information. The first folio "Hamlet" omits some famous passages, such as Hamlet's soliloquy "How all occasions do inform against me," so it's not really the standard version in the theatre; that is a combination of the first folio and second quarto texts.
'Twere to consider too curiously to consider so!! :mrgreen:

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Re: Hamlet

Post by John F » Wed Nov 08, 2017 6:48 am

? Surely not, these things matter. Just because the Globe theatre company cut the speech - maybe they decided the play was too long - doesn't mean that we should.
John Francis

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Re: Hamlet

Post by Belle » Wed Nov 08, 2017 2:33 pm

John F wrote:
Wed Nov 08, 2017 6:48 am
? Surely not, these things matter. Just because the Globe theatre company cut the speech - maybe they decided the play was too long - doesn't mean that we should.
Sorry John; I was just being flippant!

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