Ambroise Thomas: Hamlet (1868)

Grand Opera en cinq actes. Running Time: 3 hours 19 minutes (including 7 minutes of supplementary material).

SETTING: Elsinore, Denmark, some time when Denmark was still Roman Catholic. Oft told tale of melancholy Dane (baritone) who sees his dead dad (bass) leading to the drowning of his would-be-girlfriend (soprano), the murder of her father (bass, although it doesn’t happen in this opera), his uncle (bass), her brother (tenor), and the suicide (or cloistering) of his mum (mezzo-soprano). Although in this instance the Dane himself does not perish but becomes king of Denmark.


ACT 1: (48 minutes)

0: The anguished prelude ** consists of four sections, pianissimo timpani rolls followed by a string trimolandi (representing the ghost), horn calls, and finally an appropriately tormented string motif.

Scene 1: A hall in the castle of Elsinore.

5: Que nos chants montent jusqu’aux cieux After a grand march, the opening chorus **, much the same music, jubilant and bright, the coronations of Claudius and Gertrude occur (Gertrude does not see Hamlet, with good reason, he isn’t there). More jubilation, effective and grand, a very good opening. Everyone leaves as quickly as they arrived.

13: Mon seigneur! Hamlet comes on to his theme (rather uneventful) and broods about how his mum has remarried so quickly, but when Ophelia arrives, her theme is worth looking out for *. Her voicing of concern for him prompts him to quickly insult her sex, which he just has quickly takes back.

15: Doute de la lumière Hamlet introduces another theme (that of his love for Ophelia as they embark on a rather sedate duet *) but these three themes are very important as Thomas uses them throughout the score (climaxing in act four) in order to give the opera a musically connected narrative.

20: Pour mon pays Laertes arrives (Hamlet calls him his brother) and tells his sister that he is leaving for France in an okay aria *. It is followed by a brief, but sparkling, chorus of coronation party guests.

24: Nargue de la tristesse! The guests party on * as Horatio and Marcellus reveal to Hamlet that the ghost of Old Hamlet has been seen on the ramparts of the palace.

Scene 2: The ramparts.

28: The trimolandi starts off the interlude ** which sets us up for the dark atmosphere of the scene. Eventually the tormented string theme returns as well. Hamlet comes on with Horatio and Marcellus and waits, fanfare, the bells striking midnight (the ghost appears and frightens all three men, although Hamlet praises heaven for giving him the vision of his father), and the ghost gestures to be left alone with Hamlet.

38: Spectre infernal! Hamlet (now alone) addresses ** the Ghost, asking what he is to do. The Ghost declares that he must avenge a crime: namely his murder by Claudius (we already know this). Hamlet swears vengeance, the act ends.

ACT 2: (43 minutes)

Scene 1: The castle gardens.

0: The entr’acte **, after some orchestral chords, is the Hamlet Love theme from the act one duet with Ophelia.

3: Adieu, dit-il, ayez-foi! Ophelia reads from a book and pines for Hamlet (who appears silently and disregards her) **.

7: Les serments on des ailes! The cabaletta takes flight (of sorts) as Ophelia continues to fantasize about Hamlet doing something to her **.

12: Dans sons regards plus sombre Ophelia begs Queen Gertrude to let her leave court, and is refused. Mummy thinks Hamlet needs a bit of skirt to change his fowl mood in a surprisingly good arioso * with a lush orchestration. There is a very brief duet between Claudius and Gertrude in which she thinks Hamlet is on to them and Claudius shoots her down which is so short and recitative-ish that it will fly by followed by a return of the Hamlet theme and a dialogue between Claudius and Hamlet in which the latter blows up.  Gertrude and Claudius try to distract Hamlet with either Ophelia or travel respectively. Through all of this Hamlet is informed by Horatio of the arrival of the players.

22: Princes sans apanages The players show up in a good chorus **. Hamlet sets up with them the whole scenario leading up to performing The Murder of Gonzago. 

25: Ô vin, dissipe la tristesse The drinking song ***, not in Shakespeare (as the purists are apt to retort) but nevertheless a brilliant musical coup. Nice one Ambroise.

Scene 2: Great Hall of the Palace.

29: The Danish March ***, and yes, after Hamlet asks to sit with his head in the lap of Ophelia that is a saxophone which introduces the play (it is possibly the first instance of a saxophone being utilized in an opera).

34: C’est le vieux Roi Gonzague The play ** with Hamlet providing some narration.

38: Ô mortelle offense! The accusation and final *** really gets going when Hamlet bursts into the drinking song again and the court freaks out. Musically, it is one of the great operatic act finales.

ACT 3: The Apartments of the Queen. (37 minutes)

0: The furious entr’acte **: Hamlet is thinking and comes on brooding.

3: Être ou ne pas être I need not translate it, the famous monologue ** is understated, brooding, with some good effect from the brass in the pit.

9: Je t’implore, ô mon frère! Claudius comes on and prays for forgiveness kneeling at a prie-Dieu in a rather lovely bass aria **. Polonius arrives and is over heard by Hamlet telling Claudius to not panic (the king has also seen the ghost!). Hamlet interprets this as proof that Polonius is allied with Claudius. Gertrude arrives with Ophelia, thinking that marriage to her will distract Hamlet from his brooding about the reality they find themselves in. He totally disregards Ophelia, even after Gertrude makes a Kundry-esque attempt at focusing the merits of the girl (Hamlet is having none of it, especially now that he thinks her father is complicit in murder).

17: Cet amor promis à genoux The trio * is a pitifully flighty exercise as Ophelia bemoans her fate, Hamlet is totally off her, telling her to shut herself up in a convent, and Gertrude scrambles to figure out what to do next since the girl has turned into a total waste of time. Musically, it is also very weird, lacks cohesion, and even an individual melody. It sounds more like recitative. Ophelia is sent away, barely holding back her tears, pitiful thing.

22: Hamlet, ma douleur est immense! The rest of the act consists of a duet punctuated by the entrance of the Ghost: Gertrude is at a loss, Hamlet refuses to let her leave and they engage in a mildly violent confrontation **. The Ghost eventually appears (Gertrude of course is oblivious) and warns Hamlet not to take revenge on her (again, he says this in act one as well). I am confused at this point: doesn’t Hamlet stab Polonius to death at this point in the play? Apparently not in this version. The entire scene is understated (excluding the arrival of the Ghost), much of it is accompanied solely by eighth-note string chords. Hamlet leaves, Gertrude collapses.

ACT 4: By the shore of a lake. (43 minutes)

0: A placid prelude * totally disconnected from any of the action. A welcomed rest.

3: Voici la riante saison The most French-sounding Danish ballet ever ** La fete du Printemps. The chorus of peasants is much more impressive and dramatic than the series of dances (it lasts eighteen minutes). It is dramatically pointless, but not bad music.

27: Partegez-vous mes fleurs Ophelia finally arrives to something akin to the Tristan Chord as she is addressed by and responds to the peasants. There is a brief string quartet as Ophelia tees up for her vocal waltz **.

29: Pâle et blonde Finally, she mounts the summit with her Ballade ***. Much of this consists of coloratura vocal display lacking words for seven minutes, resembling the native music of a South Asian nation. When she does speak, it is more sedate. Her finish is the musical climax of the opera, with her trilling away to a high-E, going down to an A-flat and finally ending on a high B.

39: Le voilà! Je crois l’entendre! The Suicide ** utilizes a bouches fermée technique and the theme from the Ballade to create a final effect. But it does seem musically anti-climatic after the brilliant Ballade.

ACT 5: The graveyard. (21 minutes)

1: Dame ou prince The song of the Gravediggers (at first a solo, then a duet) is rather catchy **.

7: Comme une pâle fleur Hamlet, thinking Ophelia has just gone insane and not dead, embarks on a repentant aria **.

11: Écoute! Quel est ce bruit de pas? Laertes appears (after being in France for three hours) and challenges Hamlet to a dual. Their fight ends when the funeral cortege arrives bearing the body of Ophelia ** which is accompanied by the most delicate feminine chorus (it sounds so genteel, not funerary at all). Eventually the men get in on it, but it isn’t a funeral chorus.

17: Ophélie! Hamlet sees that the body is Ophelia, and attempts suicide, the Ghost appears (everyone can see him now, Gertrude screams) and we get some good exclamation from the chorus, soloists, and orchestra (gongs) **. Everything is revealed: Hamlet executes Claudius for regicide, Gertrude is banished to a convent forever, and Hamlet is declared King of Denmark to the jubilation of the people.


0: The first is the tragic two-minute ending * in which the Ghost does not appear and Hamlet dies.

2: A brief duet from act two scene one in which Claudius and Gertrude discuss how much Hamlet might know and how to distract him *. It is disturbingly chromatic in places, but the ending is good.


Emmanuel Chabrier once said that there were three kinds of music: good, bad, and Ambroise Thomas. What he meant by this, whether Thomas is even worse than bad, something between good and bad, or something else entirely, has never been fully determined. One interesting feature is that the title role is designed for a baryton-martin (basically a high baritone with a tenor-like faculty). There are problems with the adaptation from Shakespeare: both of the female characters are unlikeable: Ophelia is pitiful, not sympathetic, her mad scene comes off more as vocal decadence than a grand declaration of love-death and the suicide itself is anti-climatic after her brilliant ballade. Her scenes depict a mildly spoiled child, not a woman. Because Gertrude knows about everything already and is complicit, her relationship with her own son comes off as artificial. It is obvious that Ophelia and her attraction to Hamlet is just a tool to be discarded with failure. The best scene in the opera, the play in act 2 scene 2 and the confrontation that occurs immediately after, flies by too quickly (it is less than a quarter of an hour). Ultimately an A-.

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