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Today we’re listening to French soprano Sabine Devieilhe sing Ophelia’s Mad Scene from Ambroise Thomas’s opera Hamlet.
It is soothing for the soul to hear Sabine Devieilhe. She seems too good to be true.
But creaminess of tone is not all that Devieilhe has to offer. Her voice negotiates the challenges of this scene so gracefully that they seem almost effortless, flowing as fluidly as freshly melted chocolate.
Remember in March when we shared our operatic earworms? That was Sabine Devieilhe singing the “Flower Duet” from Lakmé by Léo Delibes.
Ophelia’s Mad Scene, from Hamlet by Ambroise Thomas
An essential part of the French 19th-century repertoire, Ambroise Thomas's Hamlet which premiered in 1868, was a fixture of the Paris opera scene until the second half of the 20th century, when it fell out of favor. But Hamlet contains plenty of incredible moments, especially when performed by an exceptional singer like Sabine Devieilhe.
What is happening in this scene?
Ophelia cannot understand or accept the fact that Hamlet has rejected her.
When Ophelia appears, villagers gather in a quiet spot in the woods near a lake.
Despite Hamlet’s rejection of her, she imagines herself as his wife. The scene is one of the opera's highlights, recalling another of opera's great mad scenes, the one from Donizetti's Lucia. Ophelia’s struggle is represented by extravagant coloratura, interspersed with music that’s delicate and moving.
Ophelia sings: “There he is! I think I hear him!”. As she leans over the water, she repeats some moments from her love duet with Hamlet in Act I. As the act ends, Ophelia enters the water to drown.
I read that the melody at 6:22 is from a Swedish folk song called Näckens Polska. And that Ambroise Thomas heard Swedish soprano Kristina Nilsson (pictured above), whom he wrote the part of Ophelia for, perform it at a concert, and he found it so incredible he incorporated it into the opera.
The scene is long, and I encourage you to listen to it in full below, but if you only have a couple of minutes, I have it cued up to a beautiful moment in the scene (8:27).
🎧 Listening Example: (15 minute listen): Soprano Sabine Devieilhe singing Ophelia’s Mad Scene, from Hamlet by Ambroise Thomas, Orchestre des Champs-Elysées, Louis Langrée conductor, Opéra Comique, December 2018
What is happening in Hamlet?
After his father’s untimely death, Hamlet is suspicious of his uncle Claudius, the new king, and his mother, Queen Gertrude. His suspicions are confirmed when he is visited by his father’s ghost, who demands that Hamlet take vengeance against them for his murder. Hamlet becomes so obsessed, he neglects everything else, including Ophelia, who believes that Hamlet no longer loves her. After spending such a long time considering the purpose of life, it is Ophelia's death that finally convinces Hamlet to seek vengeance in his father’s name. He kills Claudius, sends his mother to a convent, and is crowned King of Denmark!
Thank you for reading (and listening),
PS. We listened to “Serenata” by Pietro Mascagni from the Pavarotti’s 1988 recital at Lincoln Center if you missed last week's selection.
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