Many of the foremost eighteenth century composers of
all the major European countries could not resist trying their
hands at a Shakespeare opera. Few turned out totally
successful. Perhaps Verdi did best with Falstaff and Macbeth.
Among the French, Gounod's Romeo and Juliet is best known, but
Ambroise Thomas' Hamlet
is still often performed.
The plot is more or less faithful to Shakespeare as
opera libretti go. Hamlet sings his drinking song in the
second act with the accompaniment of the troupe of players to
spook his mother and stepfather in the next scene. In
those days drinking songs were almost mandatory in serious
operas so composers knew how to make them work. This one is
truly splendid, with three verses of baritonal magnificence,
backed up by male chorus.
'O wine, dispel the sorrow that weighs heavily on my
he sings, underlining the fact that despite the upbeat
nature of much of the music, there is a tragic basis to the
circumstances. In fact, in this place in the play, Hamlet
gives his 'To be or not to be' scene, and much of the suicidal
imagery that Shakespeare puts into the soliloquy, Thomas puts
into the drinking song