Strakosch Italian Opera: Hamlet

Event Information

Venue(s):
Academy of Music

Manager / Director:
Maurice Strakosch
Max Strakosch

Conductor(s):
Max Maretzek

Event Type:
Opera

Record Information

Status:
Published

Last Updated:
10 March 2024

Performance Date(s) and Time(s)

22 Mar 1872, 8:00 PM

Performers and/or Works Performed

1)
Composer(s): Thomas
Text Author: Barbier, Carré
Participants:  Strakosch Italian Opera Company;  Ettore Barili (role: (Marcellus));  Domenico Coletti (role: (Ghost));  J. [tenor] Reichardt (role: (Horatio));  Christine Nilsson (role: (Ophelia));  Annie Louise Cary (role: (Queen));  Armand BarrĂ© (role: (Hamlet));  Joseph Jamet (role: (Claudius));  [tenor] Locatelli (role: (Polonius));  Pasquale Brignoli (role: (Laertes))

Citations

1)
Announcement: New York Herald, 21 March 1872, 3.

“We understand that the opera, as it will be presented, will end with the drowning of Ophelia, and that half of the score has been carefully eliminated. Regarding the scenery and appointments nous verrons.”

2)
Announcement: New York Post, 21 March 1872, 2.
3)
Advertisement: New-York Times, 21 March 1872, 7.

Complete cast; list of tableaux; “For the first time in America.”

4)
Announcement: New-York Daily Tribune, 21 March 1872, 4.
5)
Review: New York Herald, 23 March 1872, 3.

“After months of weary waiting and anxious expectation the long promised opera of ‘Hamlet,’ the work of M. Ambroise Thomas, was brought out last night at the Academy of Music, before one of the largest audiences of the season. Miss Nilsson deserves credit for thus fulfilling in every detail the terms of her engagement with the public, and to her own persistent exertions the honor of placing this much-talked-of work on the American stage is due. The opera, to speak from first impressions, has one scene—the madness and death of Ophelia—which will live and take a place among the best works of the Italian, French or German school; but the rest of the opera is by no means up to even the average standard of these works. The first fatal defect of the opera is in the libretto, in which MM. Carré and Barrier succeed in burlesquing Shakespeare to an unlimited extent. The Bard of Avon has received rough usage before at the hands of opera librettists, but this is the worst of all. Zingarelli, Vaccai, Bellini and Gounod have set ‘Romeo and Juliet’ to music, each version being entirely different as far as the handling of the tragedy is concerned. Rossini transformed ‘Othello’ and Berlioz patched portions of ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ together. Then the unctuous Falstaff has been tortured worse than at Herne’s oak by the librettists of Salieri, Nicolai, Adam and Balfe. M. Thomas, the composer of ‘Hamlet,’ introduced Falstaff, Shakespeare and Queen Elizabeth in one of the wildest and most extravagant burlesques ever written, known under the title of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream.’ Scarcely less absurd is the idea of making poor old Polonius and the Queen accessories to the murder of Hamlet’s father, introducing a ballet to assist at Ophelia’s death and giving very oddly arranged selections from the original dialogue. For instance, the magnificent soliloquy reads thus in the libretto:--“To be or not, to die, to sleep, to dream; mystery!’ Still MM. Carré and Barbier are not the only people who failed to present Shakespeare in an intelligent form in a libretto. Composers should let these works alone and follow the example of Meyerbeer, who positively refused to touch any of the great poet’s works. Regarding the music, it is in general a strange patchwork of Meyerbeer, Auber, Gounod, Weber and Verdi, with a few Scandinavian airs thrown in. The opera was first produced in Paris on March 9, 1868, with Mlle. Nilsson as Ophelia, M. Faure as Hamlet, M. Collin as Laertes, Mme. Gueymard as the Queen, and M. Belval as the King. In the following year Nilsson, Sinico, Santley and Baggioio sang it at Covent Garden, London, and when Miss Nilsson came to America it was represented in London by Mlle. Sessi as Ophelia, Mlle. Tietjens as the Queen and Cologni as Hamlet. But the Swedish songstress alone saved the opera in Europe, as the heaviness and monotonous character of the music made it almost intolerable. Last night the cast was as follows [see above]. Hamlet and Ophelia are in reality the only roles worthy of note in the opera, all the others being subordinate. To speak of the music in detail, we can only mention some of the sources from which M. Thomas drew his inspiration. The ‘Coronation March’ from the ‘Prophet’ furnished the ground for the opening march and chorus, the first scene being the coronation of Queen Gertrude by the usurper Claudius. A short ‘cello solo announces the entry of Hamlet, to whom Ophelia makes violet love, and reminds him of his plighted word to her. The first passage of interest in the score is the illustration of the words:--

Doubt that the stars are fire,

Doubt that the sun doth move,

Doubt truth to be a liar;

But never doubt I love.

This is a solo of Hamlet, strangely reminding us of one of the selections from ‘Atilla.’ It recurs very often during the opera in instrumental form and is used to mark the love between Hamlet and Ophelia. In the duet which follows many ideas are borrowed from Verdi. Laertes has there his only solo, and, in fact, makes his first and last appearance in the opera. The solo was well sung by Signor Brignoli, but does not call for special commendation as a composition. The courtiers then enter and sing an old German volkslied and the curtain falls. The scene on the battlements (set last night with the tower from the ‘Trovatore,’ part of the wood scene from ‘Martha,’ and at the back a view from ‘L’Africaine’) followed, and the ghost made his debut. The instrumentation of this scene is highly dramatic, considering that ‘Der Freyschutz’ furnished no inconsiderable share of the materials. Marcellus and Horatio were represented last night by gentlemen whose acting and singing were not of a high order of merit. The ghost was clad in armor as usual, but with the singular appendage of a long bridal veil. Hamlet’s invocation, Spettro infernal, is a strong, vigorous piece of delineation, for which Mr. Barre’s voice was inadequate. A stately, solemn theme for the ‘cello of the Meyerbeer pattern succeeds the disappearance of the ghost, and this theme is repeated often during the opera, individualizing that inquiet denizen of the other world. The third tableau is a garden scene which is bodily taken from the corresponding scene in ‘Faust.’ Ophelia here laments the indifference of Hamlet to her love in strains very like the ‘King of Thule.’ A little of the Donizetti spirit is shown in her succeeding aria. A very interesting arioso for the Queen follows, which did not receive from Miss Cary due spirit and expression. The chorus of the players in this tableau is Meyerbeer in both theme and instrumentation. Hamlet then sings a commonplace drinking song (shade of the divine William!) and the curtain falls. A fine, stirring march introduces the scene of the players before the King. The well known play of ‘The Mousetrap’ is entirely done in pantomime by three ballet dancers, and Hamlet accuses the King before the entire court with the murder of his father. The fifth tableau commences with the monologue, a fine specimen of Meyerbeerish instrumentation. In this Faure made a great hit in London and Paris, but it fell without effect last night. In fact, M. Barre is not capable of sustaining such a rôle. The trio between Ophelia, the Queen and Hamlet, which follows, is very dramatic and well written, and was well rendered last evening. The tableau closed with the scene between Hamlet and his mother, in which the ghost took a part. The sixth and last tableau, and, as we have said before, the best part of the opera, introduced a ballet of ten coryphées and one male dancer and the mad scene and death of Ophelia. The ballet in Paris and London, as well as the magnificent mise en scène, would be calculated to save a worse opera than ‘Hamlet.’ But the wondrous acting and vocalism of Nilsson in this scene last night wrought the audience up to a pitch of enthusiasm rarely witnessed in the Academy, and went far to compensate for the shortcomings of the composer and the impresario. A peculiar effect is produced here by the chorus behind the scenes singing a Swedish melody, a bouches fermees, with a harp and flute accompaniment. Ophelia then laid herself down to die at the edge of the stream, and was carried away by the waters. Without disparaging the poetic idea of the death, if is necessary to speak of the mechanical illustration of it. ‘The stream’ consisted of three tiers of painted boards, and on the middle one of these Miss Nilsson was slowly wafted down on what is known in stage parlance as a ‘traveler.’ Certainly something should have been done to save this scene, at least, by the person in charge of the scenic department. The chorus and orchestra were above the average standard, and Mr. Maretzek brought them through without a halt or break. It is, indeed, a singular instance of the want of appreciation that sometimes will warp the judgment of musicians, that M. Thomas should become the successor of Auber at the Conservatoire of Paris, instead of Gounod, who is now living in London. One page from the pen of the composer of ‘Faust’ is worth all the scores that M. Thomas has written or ever will write. Miss Nilsson last evening was the recipient of showers of bouquets, and was recalled repeatedly at each fall of the curtain. Poor Shakespeare! In music or the drama he is selected as the favorite target for unscrupulous actors and composers.

Before we close the subject of the first representation of ‘Hamlet’ it is necessary to say that the score was cut with an unsparing hand, judiciously in some instances and ludicrously, for the story at least, in others. The opera ended with the death of Ophelia, and the last act was entirely omitted. The gravediggers were allowed to sink in oblivion, the duel between Hamlet and Laertes was unfought and Claudius escaped scot free. We doubt very much if, after the exit of Ophelia on the bosom of ‘the stream,’ many of the audience would have cared to wait to hear what became of her lover and brother.”

6)
Review: New York Post, 23 March 1872, 4.

“No man can set the words or thoughts of Shakespeare to music without securing at once for himself a degree of captious criticism from those who could not do the task half as well. So it is an inevitable thing that M. Thomas should be abused and ridiculed for having presumed to interpret in vocal phrases the story and the sentiments of ‘Hamlet.’ Had he written an orchestral symphony on ‘Hamlet’ it would have been considered a meritorious effort, even if it were not a triumphant success; but when he essays an interpretation of the poet in a higher and more elaborate phase of musical art, he is assailed with criticism at once shallow and bitter.

It is true other composers have attempted to illustrate the great dramatist. Gounod, Bellini, Vaccai and Zingarelli, have all set ‘Romeo and Juliet’ to music. Verdi has done with success the same service for ‘Macbeth.’ Nicolai has illustrated musically ‘The Merry Wives,’ Thomas and Mendelssohn the ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream,’ Halevy ‘The Tempest,’ and Rossini ‘Othello.’ No one, however, has, before this, essayed the difficult task of giving in lyric form the most intellectual, the most philosophical, the greatest of all written dramas.

For the purposes of M. Thomas two facile French librettists, MM. Carrier and Barbier, lent their services, and converted the noble tragedy into a rather commonplace lyric play. In very few instances are the words of Shakespeare preserved, while characters prominent in the drama are cut down to mere nonentities in the opera. One would think that the part of Polonius could be worked up in some quaint musical form, giving, in its eccentricity, some ray of light to the sombre character of the play; but in M. Thomas’s opera Polonius, like good little boys, is seen but not heard.

The Academy of Music last night was crowded to excess to hear this long-expected work. The general verdict was that it was lacking in melody, was charming if not profound in conception, and was saved from failure by the mad scene of Ophelia. This, it is true, is but a superficial verdict. The score contains many exquisite beauties. In the first of the six acts, or tableaux as they are called, there is a very agreeable and melodious chorus following the rather insipid air allotted to Laertes. In the second act the ghostly interview is characterized by some gloomy and effective orchestration and by the invocation of ‘Hamlet,’ Spettro infernale. In the third act, Ophelia appears, musing upon the unkindness of her perturbed lover, and expressing her grief in a quaint, dreamy phrase, which is scarce defined enough to be called a melody, although it is subsequently worked up into a superb finale. In this act, too, occurs the interview between Hamlet and the Queen, in which the former has a strain of exquisite beauty to the words: “Non vedi tu…” [rest of quote difficult to read]. The scene with the players then occurs, and to the amazement of the Shakespearean scholar, Hamlet winds it up with a bacchanalian song in honor of the inspiring virtues of wine!

The fourth act contains the scene of the play which so aroused the conscience of the king, but is far from being remarkable. In the fifth occurs the musical setting of the famous soliloquy, ‘To be or not to be,’ and its opening notes on the words Esser o non esser form a phrase simple in construction, but ear-haunting, tender and appropriate. The admirable ability characterizing the beginning of this solo, however, is not equably sustained, and the soliloquy loses its force. The scene where Hamlet bids Ophelia ‘to get her to a nunnery’ is very weak, though it leads to a trio which is the most symmetrical concerted piece in the opera. Next follows the scene in which Hamlet upbraids his mother, and in which the ghost reappears.

The sixth act, so far as the public is concerned, is the salvation of the opera. It is devoted entirely to the vagaries of the crazed Ophelia, and is preceded by a touch of ballet, which was given last night with charming taste, and accompanied by orchestral music most inimitable and fascinating. Ophelia then tells the story of her hapless love, distributes the flowers to the village maidens, and fascinated by the song of the sirens, goes to ‘muddy death’ in the flowing brook. The librettist here has amplified the original in a very extraordinary manner. The death of Ophelia, as everybody knows, is told in the play by the Queen in these picturesque lines:

There is a willow grows ascaunt the brook,

That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream.

But in the opera the scene is represented on the stage, and ‘willies’ or sirens are introduced whose song lures the unhappy Ophelia to the fatal stream. It is in this scene, in which occurs a quaint Scandinavian air, that Nilsson is inimitably charming. For this scene the opera was written; and in this lies its real success. Miss Nilsson has sung it often in the concert room, but it gains new interest in the appropriate setting of the stage. The music has a tender weirdness about it that is peculiarly fascinating; and Nilsson renders it as only she can do. With this scene the present representations of the opera close, the final act having proved an anti-climax in which the public declined to take any interest.

Of course the Ophelia of Nilsson is the one attraction of this opera; but her support is by no means to be slighted. Miss Cary, as the Queen, dressed sumptuously, acted and looked well, and sang admirably in the music allotted to her. The Hamlet of M. Barre was a quiet, graceful performance, lacking in power, but never offending good taste. Indeed, it is by far the best proof of his ability which this careful young artist has yet offered us. The composer has allotted to Hamlet but one air—that of the drinking song—and it is impossible, without exceptional qualities of voice, to awaken enthusiasm in a long series of sombre recitatives. M. Jamet was good as the King, and Coletti did his best with the monotone phrases in which the Ghost doth ‘his impartment make.’ The choruses were well trained and sang much better than in more familiar operas in which they have appeared this season.

The ‘Hamlet’ of Ambroise Thomas is an opera which will draw as long as Nilsson is the Ophelia. Its serious defect is its paucity of melody; but it is permeated by an atmosphere of tender grace which raises it far above the commonplace. The orchestration is often exquisitely beautiful. The few melodies are as delicate and light as fairy footfalls. The interpretation of Shakespearean thought is effeminate rather than forceful; but if the listener will carefully observe the orchestration during the long recitatives of Hamlet, he will perceive many felicitous illustrative phrases. Some critics have accused Thomas of producing a medley of strains from other composers; but such charges of plagiarism are mere hypercriticism.

‘Hamlet’ will be repeated on Monday night; and as after this our Ophelia will be with us no longer, the audience will again be one memorable in our operatic annals. We would indeed, fain recur again and again to the charming impression which Nilsson created in this character. Her delineation of it forms one of those delightful reminiscences of operatic experience which it is ever a charm and delight to have enjoyed. The very memory of it is as sweet as the fragrance of the flowers in which the fair Ophelia of Shakespeare so fantastically arrayed herself.”

7)
Announcement: New York Post, 23 March 1872, 2.

“Among the floral tributes offered to Nilsson last night was a large crown of flowers, on which were perched two beautiful tame doves. It attracted so much attention as it was passed up the aisle, that it effectually diverted the attention of the audience from the woes of Hamlet, who in his ‘inky cloak’ was singing his grievances to the sweep of the violins and the wail of the horns.

The enthusiasm which has attended the Nilsson performances of late, is very encouraging to the artists who usually find the New York audiences so cold. It would seem as if our public were just beginning to wake up to the charms of lyric performances.”

8)
Review: New-York Times, 23 March 1872, 8.

“M. Ambroise Thomas’ opera of ‘Amleto’ was represented at the Academy of Music, last evening, in presence of an immense audience. The recital was a very smooth one, and those of its incidents which had been depended upon to interest, to delight, or to impress the public, were productive of all the results awaited by persons familiar with the characteristics of M. Thomas’ work. That these incidents were not very numerous was not, so far as we are concerned, wholly unexpected. No living composer could, desiring a reasonable chance of success, cope with a libretto founded upon Shakespeare’s magnificent tragedy, and where a man of greater genius than M. Thomas might have enriched the marvelous text, not with an enhanced significance, but with musical illustrations of a not unsuggestive kind, the author of ‘Mignon,’ a finished and laborious musician only, was sure, almost, to fail. Verdi with ‘Macbeth,’ Gounod with Romeo and Juliet,’ are M. Thomas’ predecessors in this respect, though it must be said that the author of ‘Faust’ triumphed over some of the difficulties created for him by Goethe, and with consequences which M. Thomas’ finest performances have not had. ‘Faust,’ in the distant future, may be reset to some advantage, though the love of Faust and Marguerite will never be depicted with an art more potent or more sympathetic than M. Gounod’s. The libretto founded upon ‘Amleto,’ however, is still to be wedded to music. Herr Wagner would have done better, in this instance at least, than his French contemporary. M. Thomas, in the present case, has doubtless thought as much, for some of the practices of the German reformer, whom his French confrères hate and despise so cordially, appear in ‘Amleto.’ The intimate alliance which M. Thomas has sought to establish between the words and the notes, the reliance of the voice upon the orchestra and of the orchestra upon the voice for the realization of an idea, dozens of bits of instrumentation, and the unvarying accompaniment of a cello solo to Amleto’s movements, and of flute-passages to Ophelia’s, are some proofs of what we advance. Many progressions in the opera remind one of ‘Mignon,’ but the plan has been totally different. We hardly think, however, that the new composition is a poorer commentary upon ‘Hamlet’ than was ‘Mignon’ upon the episode from Goethe’s ‘Wilhelm Meister.’’Amleto,’ unluckily, has neither the diversity of characters nor the situations of ‘Mignon,’ and the monochromatic subject could not be well treated with the variety of hues which give to the lighter opera its not unrecognized spell. For the gloom overspreading ‘Amleto,’ M. Thomas is not wholly responsible. In spite of these reservations, much is to be lauded in ‘Amleto,’ and after-rehearsals will probably supply new motives for praise. The single recital whereof we speak can only furnish material for a review of salient parts, and for a hurried allusion to the interpretation.

A brief prelude, of a sombre cast, and a good march-movement preface the action. In the first tableau, the curtain rises upon the nuptials of King Claudio and the Queen. The chorus of welcome to the sovereign and the passages following, are written with a greater breadth of phrasing than much of M. Thomas’s work, but are more conspicuous, nothwithstanding, for sonority than for any higher qualities. The love duet between Amleto and Ophelia, bears stronger testimony to the composer’s talent. The harmonies are exquisite, and the phrase ‘Negar tu puoi,’ cleverly managed in respect of its varied assignment in the orchestra, and made to do duty in the effective ensemble closing the duo, previous to serving throughout ‘Amleto’ as the key-tune of the score, is one of those felicitous discoveries which, like ‘Non conosci quel suoi,’ will keep the newer composition, as that air does ‘Mignon,’ fresh in the recollection of all. The recitative and cavatina, by Laerte, in which the young soldier commends his sister to the Queen, is not a remarkable number. The first movement is conventially martial, and the second has no other merit than a vague grace of form, which seems to be rather the result of experiment than of the creativeness of a gifted melodist. The first effect of the bars of a chorus of officers and pages, prefatory to a banquet, is singular. The opening passages are very low, and the impression is the reverse of festive. M. Thomas is rarely inelegant, but it is not possible to mistake the character of the second movement of this chorus, which would do more credit to M. Offenbach than to the musical illustrator of ‘Hamlet.’ The story of Horatio and Marcello is unfolded at this stage of proceedings, and then the chorus is resumed. The second tableau is best known as the platform scene. With the admirable acting of M. Faure, its power must be vastly increased. An intelligent and correct delivery of the notes, and an earnest but not forceful personation of the Hamlet of the play do not suffice when the music is subsidiary, as it is at this point, to the action. Portions of the incident, however, are to be mentioned with approval, and the invocation includes sentences in which the alternate terror and passionate love of the seer of his father’s ghost are happily depicted. The third tableau commences with the air by Ophelia. The daughter of Polonius complains of her abandonment by Amleto. The accompaniment is charming, but until the allegro moderato, a well-defined cantabile bearing the usual evidences of research, the air is little else than recitative. An arioso for the Queen, in which the sovereign implores Ophelia to remain at court, is next in order, but of secondary interest in every respect. The scene between Amleto, Claudio and the Queen is to be cited for the delicious work done in the orchestra during Hamlet’s mad talk about the clouds. This is succeeded by an animated chorus of players. Hamlet’s drinking song is heard subsequently. It is one of the clearest numbers of the opera, and the dash of the foremost bars gives a graceful prominence to the suave beauty of the second phrase. The supplementary verse of the song is of a darker coloring than the first, but the force of the contrast is not quite apparent. A resumption of the bacchanalian theme by the chorus ends this tableau. The fourth is disclosed to the strains of a Danish march. The decided rhythm and substantial scoring of the first part are very good traits, although their influence is almost marred by a very common-place close; the legato passages, beginning at the change of key, are especially deserving of attention. The remainder of the scene, aside from some delightful instrumental combinations during the progress of the play before the King, does not reveal much that is noteworthy. The climax, in which Hamlet denounces the murderer of his father, is an ordinary finale after the Italian fashion, with a little more symmetry and none of the hollowness of the poorer kind of finales. In the fifth tableau the famed monologue, ‘To be or not to be,’ occurs. A very small spark of its spirit pervades, fortunately, we may say, the effort of the librettist. Now and then the blending of voice and instruments, in connection with the language of the poet, does not seem altogether ineffective, and it is particularly suggestive when Amleto sings ‘Morir, dormer, sognar.’ After all, be it said, it is a matter of congratulation that the draught upon Shakespeare has here been light. A trio for Amleto, Ophelia and the Queen, whereof the closing bars are rather eloquent, and the closet scene, in which M. Thomas does not once rise above the plane of a skilled accompanyist, make up the remaining of the fifth tableau. The sixth secured the success of ‘Amleto’ in Europe. It embraces, as it is represented here, a little trivial ballet-music, and Miss Nilsson’s scena ed aria. The latter are not wholly unfamiliar, for the artist who recited them yesterday had already done so in the concert-room. The writing in this tableau is, from the outset to the end, of rare excellence. The task set the orchestra is of passing delicacy; much of the soprano’s music is full of a strange sweetness that haunts one as might the vision of the Ophelia beheld last night; the allegretto accompaniments to the recitative are most tuneful; the Swedish ballad is delightfully melodious, and the vocalises descriptive of the song of the lark are as illustrative as anything in music. The resumption by Ophelia of the phrase ‘Negar tu puoi,’ heard in the first act, precedes her death, on the spectacle of which the curtain descends. 

In the reference direct to the exposition of ‘Amlet’ by Mr. Strakosch’s artists last night, we may say something more than was implied at the outset of this article. It was not merely a smooth performance, but it was complete and correct. The co-operation of the ideal Ophelia caused it to be as effective as it is in Europe, in its strongest scenes. Finer acting and more finished vocal execution have never been enjoyed. Miss Nilsson’s picture of Ophelia would breathe life into an opera much less deserving of respect than M. Thomas’. We lack space at present to enter into the details of her personation, but cannot leave unnoticed the lady’s ‘mad-scene’ to bestow the wonted title upon the sixth tableau. Miss Nilsson’s superb voice, her magnificent vocalization, her varied resource as an actress were never before so apparent. A storm of enthusiasm gathered at this point of the entertainment, and burst when the curtain had fallen. There had been several recalls during the evening, but the earlier demonstrations of delight were relatively insignificant. Miss Nilsson was summoned before the footlights four times, the audience rising and cheering. As abroad, the laurels of the combat were here. The labors of her fellow-artists were not, however, unrewarded. Applause was addressed with much liberality to M. Barre, who embodied Amleto. M. Barre’s singing was marked by intelligence and taste, and his acting was thoughtful, refined, and, in the platform and play scenes, very earnest and satisfactory. Miss Annie Louise Cary played the Queen with considerable elaborateness and vigor, and her arioso was delivered with an intensity of sentiment that did not pass unheeded. Signor Brignoli rendered with his wonted sweetness Laerte’s one air, and M. Jamet represented Claudio with unimpeachable dignity. The chorus labored generally to good purpose, and the orchestra did so continually. The stage-costume of ‘Amleto,’ though it was not distinguished for perfect novelty or accuracy, embraced several evidences of generosity on the part of the management. Several bits of new scenery were observable, and the final set had never met the eye of the regular opera-goer until last night. The arrangement of the ghost-business ought to have enlisted more forethought than could have been bestowed upon the preparations for the first revival in opera of the majesty of buried Denmark. If there had been the slightest disposition among the spectators to regard Signor Coletti’s form and monotone recitatives as becomingly spiritual, the shadow thrown upon the stage by the passage of an opaque body between a calcium-light and darkness, would have prevented its indulgence.”

9)
Review: New-York Daily Tribune, 23 March 1872, 5.

“Ambroise Thomas is under an obligation to Miss Nilsson which can hardly be overstated. She saved his opera in Paris and made it one of the most marked successes of the last few years. She gave it an almost equal popularity in London. And last night she persuaded New York to accept with enthusiasm a work which but for her would hardly have kept an audience to the end of the evening. We do not think the accounts that have reached us of the extraordinary merit of her Ophelia are at all exaggerated. She had many characteristics which especially fit her for the portrayal of this favorite heroine. The tender [illegible], the deep but quiet passion, the grace of feature, form, and action which we instinctively associate with Shakespeare’s fair, sweet maid, are all here. She moves through the scene a perfect picture and embodiment of the ideal Ophelia. It is not the artist, but Ophelia’s self whom we see happy in Hamlet’s love, trembling at his changing moods, terrified at his coolness, crazed by his desertion. This does not seem [illegible], but the simple truth of nature. Even in the last terrible mad scene, we are spared the horrors of conventional stage lunacy. Miss Nilsson is neither a raving maniac nor a [illegible], and therein she differs from all other actresses who have been seen in parts of this character. Her madness had all the pathos of suffering without the [illegible] symptoms of disease. It is the crowning [illegible] of an impersonation which from first to last is thoroughly beautiful and touching. Ophelia is the one bright image which irradiates a very somber opera. As played last night, in six acts or tableaux, the ‘Hamlet’ of Ambroise Thomas follows with [halting?] and curiously erratic steps the tragedy from which the plot is borrowed, or we should rather say ‘[illegible].’ In the first act we have the marriage of Claudius and Gertrude (M. Jamet and Miss Cary), a love duet between Hamlet (M. Barré) and Ophelia, and one little air for Laertes (M. Brignoli), who straightaway goes off to the wars, and is heard of no more. Musically there is nothing in this act that need detain us. The second is devoted wholly to the apparition on the esplanade of the castle, the Ghost (Mr. Coletti) delivering his message from the grave in a long monotone, with rather impressive [illegible]. The effect upon the whole was not strong, owing, perhaps, in great part last night to the weakness of the performers. In act third we are shown the gardens of the palace, where Hamlet, meeting with Ophelia, gives the first evidence of the perturbation of mind which [illegible] to lead to their separation. After he has left her, Ophelia throws away the book she has been reading and bursts into a bitter denunciation of man’s [illegible], a passage which Miss Nilsson delivered with [illegible] dramatic force and [illegible]. There is a [illegible] and uninteresting dialogue among all the chief [illegible] and finally, the arrival of the [illegible] Hamlet—shade of Shakespeare, forgive him! [illegible] the footlights, and [illegible] a drinking song: [4 lines, difficult to read]

[Illegible] gives the scene of the players, very [illegible] accustomed to see it; the players acted in pantomime by two ladies and a gentleman of the ballet [illegible] usual manner of those intellectual persons, while Hamlet, reclining at the feet of Ophelia, gives a running commentary upon the drama. The famous soliloquy, ‘To be or not to be,’ (or, as the libretto has it, ‘to be or not…mystery! To die…to sleep! To [illegible!’) opens the fifth act. It is introduced by a solo on the trombone, and perhaps when we have said this we have characterized it [illegible]. A scene between Hamlet, Ophelia, and the Queen, gives opportunity for a trio, which has meet with some favor in the concert room, and is one of the very few pieces of the opera which can [illegible] be separated from its place in the whole work. The apparition of the Ghost to Hamlet in his mother’s chamber brings this all to a close. Act Sixth is [illegible] to a ballet, and the mad scene. The action takes place by the bank of the river, where Ophelia [illegible] her garlands and distributes [illegible] and [illegible] merry making of the peasantry, and at last, [illegible] have left her and the strains of distant music are heard across the water, she [illegible] herself among the rushes and is borne off by the stream. As she [illegible] out of sight, scattering flowers over the wave, her dying song fades upon the ear, and the curtain falls. In the original French version there is another act, which winds up with no less a denouement than the coronation of Hamlet as King of Denmark; but this, thank heaven! has been omitted. 

The music has little of the grace and melody which are admired in ‘Mignon.’ It is ingenious without being at [illegible] striking, and though it is scholarly, it is painfully and unpleasantly elaborated. There is a straining for [illegible] all are not reached, for Mr. Thomas [illegible] skill in the [illegible] of either instruments or [illegible], his ideas are not fluent and his [illegible] are not rich. Until the sixth act a [illegible] dullness reigns, broken only by the exquisite art of the prima donna in the scenes allotted to her; but in the closing portion of the work there is abundance of [illegible] and freshness. What the part of Hamlet might be in the hands of a really great artist we hesitate to say. It is the principal role in the opera. M. Faure created it in Paris, and Mr. Santley did justice to it in London. It has some noble though not very pleasing music, and [illegible] is of course in magnificent dramatic opportunities. M. Barré was severely overweighted by it, and reminded one all through the evening of the spectacle of a great man struggling with adversity, for he did his very best and surpassed his average mediocrity without by any means satisfying the exactions of the occasion. Two or three scenes he acted very well, but he failed to make the music interesting, and we should think his best friends must have been tired of him before it was over. The other parts—Miss Cary’s, M. Jamet’s, and Mr. Brignoli’s—are slight, and a word of general commendation is all that is necessary. There is some new and good scenery; the chorus has been enlarged and well dressed; and the stage appointments are much better than they have been at any previous performance during the Nilsson season. We have only to add that the audience was enormous and the enthusiasm beyond precedent. Miss Nilsson was called out four times at the end of the opera, and nearly smothered with doves and flowers.”

10)
Review: Dwight's Journal of Music, 06 April 1872, 215.

“On Friday, March 22nd, the long expected Opera of Hamlet was produced, with the following cast [see above].

The Opera was given in six tableaux, introduced, the first by an overture, and each of the others by a brief orchestral prelude. The first Tableau represents the Palace of the King of Denmark, and the coronation of Gertrude as Queen. It opens with a chorus, followed by a brief aria for the King, which gives place to a choral refrain, ‘Inni lieti cantare dobbiamo,’ when all withdraw from the scene, and Hamlet advances slowly from the back of the stage and is presently joined by Ophelia. This scene contains the exquisite fragment of melody: ‘Negar tu puoi la luce’ (‘Doubt that the stars are fire’), sung by Hamlet, and the air ‘Angeli eterni’ by Ophelia. Then Laertes appears, sings his aria and departs for the wars. The act closes with a spirited chorus: ‘Bando alla ria mestizia.’ 

A solemn and ghostly prelude ushers in Tableau 2nd, ‘The platform scene,’ in which an elderly party clad in a complete suit of antique armor, and decorated with a long white veil, announced himself, in sepulchral tones, as ‘Thy father’s spirit.’ By this time the faces of the auditors offered a more interesting spectacle than anything upon the stage. Some wore a look of blank amazement, others looked amused, others hopelessly bored. It was plain that those who came with pre-conceived ideas based upon the sparkling and seductive music of Mignon, were doomed to be grievously disappointed. 

And so plot and music dragged their slow length along; the former shorn of all its majesty, the latter heavy, though by no means commonplace, through Part 3d (the Palace Gardens), containing an air for Ophelia, an air for the Queen, and a Drinking-Song for Hamlet, absurdly substituted for the ‘advice to the players’ of Shakespeare.

Part 4th represents the play within a play, and here the librettists, departing from Shakespeare’s plot, make Hamlet denounce the King as his father’s murderer.

Part 5th opens with Hamlet’s soliloquy, distorted, of course, almost beyond recognition. Then follows the interview between Hamlet and the Queen,--the affair of Polonius being left out,--and the re-appearance of the highly respectable ghost, whose advent was the occasion for an irreverent smile on the part of the audience.

Part 6th represents the borders of a lake, overhung by willows, and opens with a chorus of peasants. This is succeeded by a light and trivial ballet, continued during the greater part of the scene which follows, and introduced, apparently, as an artistic means of heightening by a bitter irony of contrast the effect of tragedy.

What follows is beyond the power of words to describe. For, by her histrionic art, aided by some exquisitely simple music, Miss Nilsson has made of Ophelia’s madness and death a personation which I believe to be unequalled by any thing upon the operatic stage. And yet how simple the means by which so great an effect is produced. A few flowers fantastically disposed upon her head; her long hair trailing loosely upon her white attire; her sad eyes, now cast down, anon raised with a look from which reason’s sweet light has fled; the pathetic sadness of her voice; the fragments of song cut short by hysterical laughter; the mute appeal of hand and arm. Watch the artist closely as you may, she never repeats herself, never descends to the level of the commonplace. She distributes rosemary and rue among the maidens, and sings to them of ‘La sirena,’ the wily siren who sleeps beneath the wave; she motions them to depart; one by one they leave her; the trivial music of the ballet dies away and she is alone. The end is near; with one quick wild look at the peaceful scene around her she springs to the bank, crouches for an instant among the rushes, and is drawn out by the tide. Upborne by her garments she sings until the envious waves drag her down.

Doubt that the stars are fire,

Doubt that the sun doth move,

Doubt truth to be a liar

But never doubt, I love.

The opera terminates with a seventh Tableau, in which Hamlet (heaven save the mark) is proclaimed King; Gertrude repents of her evil deeds; and Laertes and Polonius survive. This act, however, is generally dropped, as it was on this occasion, and so we were spared a most ridiculous denouement. This last Tableau includes a duet for the two grave diggers, a soliloquy for Hamlet, &c, &c., but I imagine no one could wish to hear it after the mad scene which is the proper close of the Opera.”