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:
29 March 2024

Performance Date(s) and Time(s)

25 Mar 1872, 8:00 PM

Performers and/or Works Performed

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

Citations

1)
Advertisement: New-York Times, 24 March 1872, 7.

Final performance prior to the company’s departure for Washington, D. C.

2)
Review: New York Herald, 26 March 1872, 7.

“The Swedish songstress took leave of the New York public last night before an overwhelming audience, who patiently waited for the only tolerable scene in the opera of ‘Hamlet’—namely, the last one. In this, despite the meagre surroundings, Miss Nilsson aroused her hearers to unwonted enthusiasm, and made them forget, to a certain extent, the ennui consequent on listening to the dreary, ill-arranged music that preceded this scene. It is perfectly unaccountable how any composer occupying a prominent position in the Conservatoire of Paris could be guilty of such palpable injustice as to appropriate, without any acknowledgment, the ideas of others into an ill-assorted potpourri and call it an opera. We have already spoken at length about the ridiculous character of the libretto, but it may be necessary to refer in detail to the composer’s share in the desecration of one of Shakespeare’s noblest tragedies.

The opera of Hamlet has twenty-four musical numbers, nineteen of which were given with considerable pruning in the version presented at the Academy of Music. We can summarize them thus:--No. 1—Prelude, march and chorus, taken in substance from ‘Le Prophète,’ Meyerbeer, with a very commonplace ending, à la Offenbach. No. 2—Recitative and duet, Hamlet and Ophelia. Very incongruous flute and harp passages in the beginning and a theme founded upon the terzetto from ‘Attila.’ This is the motif of ‘Hamlet’ throughout the opera, and leads into a second theme, which is also an extract from Verdi. No. 3—Laertes’ only solo; melody very uninteresting and fit only for one of Hervé’s operas bouffes. No. 4—Chorus of officers and pages. A well-known Thuringian volkslied, which may be heard at the festive gatherings of any of our German singing societies. No. 5—Scene on the esplanade, in which Hamlet, Marcellus, Horatio and the Ghost appear. Instrumentation founded on the incantation scene from ‘Der Freyschütz’ in some phrases, note for note. The motif of the Ghost is given by the ‘cello, and is a thoroughly Meyerbeer theme. No. 6—Garden scene and aria, Ophelia. If Gounod had not written the garden scene in ‘Faust,’ M. Thomas would have been obliged to seek ideas elsewhere, for this is an exact copy. The second motif sounds strangely like an aria from ‘Maria di Rohan.’ No. 7—Arioso, the Queen, founded upon a song by Abt, and occasionally wandering into unknown paths in the way of queer instrumentation. No. 8, duo, King and Queen, with the song of Hamlet repeated at the conclusion of the scene and poorly orchestred. Only one short theme of the duet was given, nine pages being omitted, and judging from the ‘score,’with judgment. No. 9—chorus of players. Taken bodily from ‘L’Africaine,’ being one of the themes of the ‘Indian March.’ No. 10, drinking song, Hamlet. An old German students’ drinking song. No. 11, Danish march and chorus of courtiers. This march resembles very much the ‘Schillermarsch’ of Meyerbeer. No. 12, pantomime and finale, is unworthy of any musician, being aimless, noisy and ineffective. No. 13 is the celebrated monologue, or, as the libretto has it, ‘To be or not, to die, to sleep, to dream, mystery! Perhaps.’ This is a stately, dignified movement, weak only in the vocal part. Meyerbeer has helped M. Thomas again here in the instrumentation. No. 15, the aria for the bass being omitted, is the trio between Ophelia, Hamlet and the King, and No. 16, the scene between Hamlet and his mother, in which the ghost makes his final appearance. There are some beautiful ideas in both these numbers, but they are like flowers in a wilderness of weeds, Mr. Thomas being evidently at a loss how to use them. The last numbers include the ballet music, of which there are forty-two pages of very commonplace dance themes, with a few of Scandinavian origin and the celebrated mad scene of Ophelia. In this Nilsson is superb, and her acting and singing will always carry an audience with her. Such was the case last night. Few artists would have been able to struggle successfully against the poverty stricken surroundings and ‘pennywise and pound foolish’ management that endeavored in every way to kill the opera, but Nilsson did it. The last scene was the solitary gleam of light in the dreary gloom of the opera. How much better would it have been to have allowed Miss Nilsson to bid farewell to New York in either of her greatest roles, Lucia or Violetta? ‘Hamlet’ should have been brought out earlier in the season and in proper style, as the constant postponement and extravagant promises led people to suppose that there was something in it worthy of the grand subject. When we look back upon this remarkably successful season, we can only come to the conclusion that in no other city in the world is operatic genius more generally recognized and patronized, where a single prima donna carried off all the honors and commanded homage, even though surrounded by mediocrity and incompetency.”  

3)
Review: New York Sun, 26 March 1872, 1.

“Who would suppose that Mr. Strakosch would have waited till the last night but one of Miss Nilsson’s appearance in New York to bring her before the public in an opera that she has made so conspicuously her own as ‘Hamlet.’

He had his own good reasons, doubtless; and whether it was that the season is not yet at an end, except in the imagination of the public, or that ‘Hamlet’ might, if produced earlier, have proved a fiasco, and so injured the campaign, Mr. Strakosch best knows.

At all events, managers have as clear a right to do unexpected things as the rest of mankind; and certainly a twelfth-hour ‘Hamlet’ (supposing always that this is the twelfth hour) is better than none at all. 

Ambroise Thomas wrote this opera that Miss Nilsson might sing Ophelia, and he created for her in that character a rôle for which she is eminently fitted, and which gives scope to her varied powers. The opera was first brought out in Paris in March, four years ago.

M. Faure, a splendid singer and an actor of consummate skill, was Hamlet, the rôle filled here last evening by M. Barre, Mme. Gueymard was the Queen—certainly no better a representative of the character than Miss Cary proved herself. M. Beival was the King. Jamet assumed the rôle here, and fills it with credit to himself.

The Parisians when the opera was first given were tolerably content with the first act, yawned dreadfully during the second and third, were electrified by the fourth, and endured the fifth. The fate of the opera was not essentially different at the Academy of Music last evening. Here, however, as well as in London, the last act is dispensed with, the opera having reached the culminating point of interest with the death of Ophelia, which occurs at the close of the fourth act.

The libretto is from the same hands that prepared that to ‘Mignon.’ Messieurs Carré and Barbier, the inseparables, are the authors, and they have combined against Shakespeare after as gentle a fashion as could have been expected from two Frenchmen bent on subduing the greatest of tragedies to the necessities of the lyric stage. As ‘Hamlet’ is poetical, imaginative, metaphysical, and reflective, it would seem to hold out but slight temptation and every possible disadvantage to the librettist. But the courage of the writers was equal to the occasion, and we have ‘To be or not to be’ (Etre ou ne pas être, O mystere!), and a number of other famous passages reduced to musical notation. Hamlet’s advice to the players was evidently too much for these daring play writers, and for this they substituted a drinking song. The wonder is that the perturbed ghost of Shakespeare does not appear upon the stage in place of the rheumatic and jerky apparition of the deceased King that Signor Coletti horrifies us with. 

The story during the four acts here given is followed in a sketchy way with tolerable fidelity. The first act opens with a chorus. This seems to be conceded as an operatic necessity. Next comes a somewhat elaborate duo for the same voices in ‘Mignon.’ There is also a solo for Laertes (Brignoli), some concerted music, and a final chorus, written in polka time and having a certain vivacity. 

The music in this act and also in the two following is well composed and pure and elevated in style, not descending to any trickery to catch the public ear; but there is no disguising the fact that it is very tedious and heavy. Occasionally it lights up for a few bars. Nilsson gives it life by her sweet presence and beautiful singing; Miss Cary does excellently, commanding attention and admiration during her aria in the second act; but the impression constantly returns that Thomas labored with his theme, and that Hercules, not Euterpe, came to his aid. There is a lack of inspiration; the melodies appear not to have come to the composer in spite of himself, but to have been thought out and worked out. It is not till the fourth act that the muse has smiled on him. But here Thomas rose to the situation and redeemed his Opera.

Without the great scene for Ophelia—her mad scene—the opera could not have outlived a second representation.

Miss Nilsson has familiarized us in the concert room with her superb rendering of this scena, but it requires the accessories and facilities of the stage to enable her to do it justice, and of these she availed herself last night to give us the most striking dramatic picture that she has yet presented. And not only the most striking, but by far the loveliest and most affecting.

During the whole of the touching mad scene the audience listened with absorbed attention. The music is full of violent transitions, much of it sparkling and riant, and some of it exceeding plaintive.

The melody of the plaintive portion—almost the only set melody in recognizable form in the whole opera—is not Thomas’s own music, but is borrowed from Scandinavian sources, being a Delecarlian folksong much sung in old days by Jennie Lind. This is repeated by a chorus behind the scenes à bouches fermées. The effect is a very fine one, not given in the concert rendering of the scene. It is an invitation from the water nymphs to Ophelia to join them. She lies down among the rushes, and is floated away upon the current, singing as she goes.

The audience was very much excited as the curtain fell, and recalled Miss Nilsson with bravas more hearty than any she has received during the season. 

She brought with her as she reappeared the basket of flowers and the two doves that had been given her at the close of the third act. Every one seemed to have forgotten the tediousness of the preceding acts, and to remember only the beauty of the last one. 

Mr. Barré had a very thankless rôle. The music of ‘Hamlet’ is not such as to win for the singer much applause. Moreover, it is exceedingly difficult. It is all the more, therefore, to Mr. Barré’s credit that he sang it with such fidelity and conscientiousness.

In no character that he has taken has this gentleman shown himself so much an artist as in this.” [Reprint, DJM 04/06/72, p. 212-13]

4)
Review: New-York Times, 26 March 1872, 5.

“The second performance of ‘Amleto’ was given at the Academy of Music, last evening. It attracted almost as numerous an audience as the first rehearsal of the opera, and the recital of the fifth act awakened as much enthusiasm as it did on Friday night, Miss Nilsson being summoned before the curtain three times in succession. The representation did not, however, disclose any beauties unrevealed by the first night. ‘Amleto’ is certainly a failure insomuch as it was intended to musically illustrate the tragedy, and its qualities as a composition are not of a kind to impress a general audience with a deep admiration for the composer. Last evening, passages of the duet in the first tableau, and of the air for Ophelia in the second; the drinking song, and the whole of the final scene gave the wonted pleasure, but the rest of the rehearsal afforded seemingly but slight gratification. As on Friday, when an exceedingly creditable rendering of the score made what is now proven to have been a pretty fair opinion of ‘Amleto’ possible, M. Thomas’ opera was sung with much care. Too warm praise cannot be lavished upon Miss Nilsson’s personation of Ophelia, which is sufficiently consistent, varied and powerful to live in one’s memory, distinct from the too-elaborate writing with which, in ‘Amleto,’ it is allied. Commendation is also to be bestowed upon M. Barre’s picture of Amleto, a more thoughtful effort, certainly, than could be expected of most baritones. Miss Cary shows unusual dramatic force in the role of the Queen, and M. Jamet is as satisfying as Claudio as in every part he has assumed since his first introduction to the American public. Yesterday’s exposition of ‘Amleto,’ we must not omit to say, constituted the last performance of the present very successful series. Messrs. Strakosch are to the thanked for the opportunity they have supplied to the frequenters of the Academy to become aware of the characteristics of ‘Amleto,’ and also for the delight given by the interpretation of many less pretentious if more familiar works.”

5)
Review: New-York Daily Tribune, 26 March 1872, 5.

“The curtain fell last night upon one of the most brilliantly successful seasons in our operatic annals. The Academy was crowded from floor to ceiling with an audience as enthusiastic as if it were not so fashionable, which seized every opportunity afforded by Mr. Thomas’ opera to applaud for the last time the beautiful and graceful artist who is about to vanish from our sight. The applause for the first few acts was, it is true, a matter of duty and sentiment rather than of genuine appreciation, but in the last two the wonderful singing and the delicious voice of Miss Nilsson won [illegible] tribute of long and hearty acclamations. [Illegible] of the opera she was four times before the curtain, held a rain of bouquets and garlands, [illegible] audience rising and cheering at last with an energy which rather resembled the enthusiasm of an army or a ratification meeting, than the calm applause which an American public usually doles out to its favorites. A tinge of sadness, in view of the threatened departure of the sweet singer, had evidently touched and softened the general heart.”

6)
Review: New York Post, 26 March 1872, 2.

“In ‘Hamlet’ last night Miss Nilsson, for a while at least, bade farewell to the New York public. The opera, which was listened to by an enormously large audience, produced the same impression as on the first night of its production. The first five ‘tableaux’ or acts seemed to contain much that was wearisome, to judge by their effect upon the audience; but the exquisite music of the last act—beautiful alike in its vocal score and in its instrumentation—gave unbounded pleasure. Nilsson was called several times before the curtain, and, indeed, throughout the entire evening awakened cordial enthusiasm. M. Barre gave a graceful personation of Hamlet, and Miss Cary made the most of the sombre part of the Queen.”

7)
Article: Dwight's Journal of Music, 06 April 1872, 215.

“On Monday evening, March 25th, the curtain fell upon the most successful season of Italian opera which New York has ever known. When Mr. Strakosch issued his prospectus last fall the enterprise was deemed hazardous, and it was thought that even Nilsson’s great genius would fail to insure its success. And what has been the result? With a scale of prices nearly double that of any theatre in Paris, and a chorus and mise-en-scène disgraceful in any civilized country, the demand for seats has been unprecedented, and the house so crowded every night that a late comer found it difficult to secure standing room within view of the stage. The receipts for the last three weeks have been nearly $60,000. From this, and other signs it is plain that the time is come for the establishment here of regular Opera.—an institution which would be liberally patronized by the public; abundantly sustained without subvention, and, if I mistake not, prove remunerative to the manager. We have something like this in prospect for next season, as I understand that Mr. Maretzek has a lease of the Academy for three evenings and one afternoon of each week, from Sept. 30, 1872, to May 1st, 1873, and that he is to give Italian Opera during that time, with Pauline Lucca and Miss Kellogg as Prima Donnas.

Miss Nilsson’s farewell season began March 4th and ended on the 25th, consisting of ten nights and three matinées. The repertoire was as follows: Mignon (three times), Martha, Trovatore, Faust (twice), Lucia di Lammermoor, Traviata, Robert le Diable (twice), and Hamlet (twice). It will be seen that the management gave us none of the variety which might have been expected, Robert and Hamlet being the only novelties. One reason for this lack of variety may have been the fact that the chorus and scenery were utterly inadequate to anything out of the beaten track. Passing over those operas that have become household words to us this winter (the most hackneyed of which was most justly and properly denounced in your columns not long since).”