It's an astonishing experience for any opera-lover, thinking you know all the greatest works, to suddenly stumble across another masterpiece. And this is certainly what Ambroise Thomas' Hamlet (1868) is, as a new DVD from EMI unambiguously demonstrates. The plot has been severely cut down from Shakespeare's original, and some major surprises result -- none more startling than when the Ghost shows up in the graveyard scene, grabs the King by the throat, and invites Hamlet to run him through with his sword. Having Polonius and the Queen implicated in the original murder are minor shocks beside this one, reminding opera-goers, as it does, of another ghost presiding over another opera ending -- in Amadeus Mozart's Don Giovanni.
But it's the music that's so breathtaking -- dramatic, beautiful and above all interesting, almost throughout. This is hardly what you expect from mid-19th century French opera, yet the result is the equal of Berlioz, but with an added Italianate zest. For me, this has been by quite a long way the greatest operatic revelation of the year to date.
The work is given an absolutely riveting performance by Barcelona's Gran Teatre del Liceu. The orchestral sound under Bertrand de Billy is strong and incisive, and all major soloists turn out to be of five-star quality. The audience goes wild over the Ophelia of Natalie Dessay, and she is indeed marvelous. For me, however, even more devastating is the tigerish performance of Beatrice Uria-Monzon as the queen, creating a ferocious accomplice in murder far removed from
Shakespeare's hesitant, tearful original.
Simon Keenlyside offers a prince who is by turns meditative, scornful and frantic, and vocally he is every inch the equal of this long role, youthful (in himself) yet artistically mature. Alain Vernhes is also strong as the king, while the astonishingly lofty Marcus Hollup delivers an unusually commanding ghost without a shred of the self-pity Shakespeare gives him. The basic but adaptable set is in every way sufficient, and the costumes -- part-modern, part-19th century -- are strongly atmospheric. Only the play scene falls rather flat due to inappropriate comic effects from the overly camp performers.
These two DVDs (the opera lasts all but three hours) are wonderful value and should be acquired by all opera-lovers. The performance was recorded live in October last year. The same theater is also responsible for the new Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (Shostakovich), again from EMI, which will be reviewed in this column next month.
Tosca's Kiss is a documentary film dating from 1984 about the Milan home for retired musicians endowed by Verdi in his last years. It's moving and depressing at one and the same time. The residents sing, reminisce and show the camera crew round the building. The lack of commentary is a distinct advantage -- this is what it's like, you feel the director is saying, and you must draw your own conclusions. The film's title comes from Tosca's words in the opera as she stabs to death her police-chief tormentor with a dinner-table knife -- "That was Tosca's kiss." Two of the retired singers give an impromptu
rendering of the scene in a corridor, one falling into a phone booth as he supposedly expires.
Remembering Jacqueline du Pre is an hour-long documentary that consists of footage of the celebrated British cellist at the height of her powers -- some in black-and-white, some in color -- plus linking comments by her teacher William Pleeth. It will prove precious to those who love her recordings, and lacks both the sensationalism and the mawkishness that disfigured the 1998 bio-pic Hilary and Jackie.