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Hamlet as an Opera
The following article was originally published in Hamlet From the Actor's Standpoint. Henry P. Phelps. New York: Edgar S. Werner, 1890.

poster from 1868 Hamlet operaHamlet, an opera by Ambroise Thomas, words by Barbier and Carré, was produced at the Académie in Paris, March 9, 1868; in London in Italian, as Amleto, at Covent Garden, June 19, 1869, with Nilsson and Santley in the principal rôles. Next to Christine Nilsson, the original Ophelia of the lyric stage, Albani has been considered the best representative of the character. The opera has never been popular either in England or America. The composer, however, stipulated that Mr. Gye should retain the exclusive English right on condition of presenting it at Covent Garden every season; and for several years it was performed once each season. The play-scene in the opera terminates with a drinking song and chorus for Hamlet and the courtiers. It has been said (Edwards' "Lyrical Drama") that it should have been called Ophelia, as she is the principal person both in musical and dramatic point of view, and the best scene in the opera is not in the play at all. There is a tinge of Scandinavian national color to the music, by reproducing the character of the Swedish melodies in both the heroine's grand scenas and of employing here and there actual passages of Swedish origin. Nilsson was an admirable representative of the heroine.

Amleto, an opera by Zeno and Gasparini, was brought out in 1711. Dr. Burney says it was written for Venice, but was produced at the Queen's Theatre in London, and the overture at the Queen's Theatre in London, and the overture had four movements ending with a jig.

The following synopsis was originally published in The Story of a Hundred Operas. Felix Mendelsohn. Chicago: Felix Mendelsohn, 1913.


Opera in Five Acts
Music by Ambroise Thomas
Libretto by Barbier and Carre from Shakespeare's "Hamlet"

First Production: Paris, 1868


HAMLET, Prince of Denmark -- Baritone
CLAUDIUS, King of Denmark -- Basso
POLONIUS, Chancellor -- Basso
LAERTES, Polonius' son -- Tenor
GERTRUDE, Hamlet's mother -- Mezzo-Soprano
OPHELIA, daughter of Polonius -- Soprano


Christine Nilsson as OpheliaACT 1. Hall in the Palace. The Queen is holding a court reception and is worried because her son Hamlet absents himself. As in the tragedy of Shakespeare, the young prince does not know that his father was murdered, but he is angry at his mother for having married his uncle so soon after his father's death. Ophelia appears and wonders if Hamlet has ceased to love her, for she has heard that he is going to leave the kingdom. The Prince tells her never to doubt his love. "Celestial maiden, 'tis not thee I chide." The principals next appear on a rampart of the castle. It is night and Hamlet's friends tell him of the appearance of the ghost of his father, the late King. Hamlet awaits his father's spirit, which appears at the appointed hour. The spectre speaks. "I am thy father's ghost doomed for a certain time to walk at night." It tells of the murder by the present King and urges Hamlet to avenge the crime, leaving his mother's punishment to Heaven.

ACT 2. Garden of the Palace. Hamlet, distressed by Ophelia's despair, feigns melancholia. The Prince, hopeful of entrapping the King into a confession of crime, wishes to employ the strolling players to present a play. The King and Queen gladly assent, hoping that this will cheer Hamlet. The Prince explains to the players the plot he wants presented--a duplicate of the murder of his father. He cheers them with wine. "Wine, this gloom dispel." Scene two takes place in a hall arranged for the play. The actors, well instructed by the Prince, reenact the murder of Hamlet's father. The King, terrified by what he beholds, cannot conceal his dismay. Hamlet, in a frenzy, now denounces him as the murderer of the noble King. But the court thinks that his accusations are the ravings of a man who is losing his reason.

ACT 3. The Queen's Apartments. The famous soliloquy: "To be or not to be, that is the question." The Queen and Ophelia appear and bid him cease his strange musings. He tells Ophelia she should be in a convent and accuses his mother of being an accomplice in the murder. But his father's ghost, suddenly appearing to Hamlet alone, bids him spare his mother.

ACT 4. Near a lake. Ophelia, deserted by Hamlet, has lost her reason. In this, the Mad Scene, she toys with a garland of flowers. She imitates the lark and sings a wild melody that is broken by laughter and weeping. At the end she hurls herself into the lake and floats down to her death with the flowers.

ACT 5. The Churchyard. Here Hamlet comes to see Ophelia buried. He muses on her grave. "As a lovely flower." The funeral procession arrives. Again his father's ghost appears to Hamlet. Desperate now, he attacks and kills the King. The people, now convinced of the dying King's guilt, proclaim that Hamlet shall be King. In the ending, of course, the opera differs materially from the drama in which Hamlet also dies.

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