By the middle of the 19th century the whole of France had been gripped by a great enthusiasm for the works of William Shakespeare. With her performance as Ophelia in Paris in 1827, the actress Harriet Smithson triggered an Ophelia mania that swept all of Europe. Ambroise Thomas, in his opera adaptation of Hamlet, gave the fate of this female character greater prominence. An entire scene is dedicated to the death of the beautiful, gentle woman who loses her mind without the love of her beloved, whereas Shakespeare needs only a few lines of verse to report the event. Genuine and fake madness and Hamlet’s conflict between love and filial duty are at the heart of the operatic version.
Prince Hamlet is still in mourning for his father, the recently deceased King of Denmark, when his mother marries Claudius, the dead King’s brother. During the wedding celebrations the ghost of the King appears to his son and reveals to him that Claudius murdered him with the complicity of the queen. He tells Hamlet he must take revenge for the murder and kill Claudius. So that he can make his plans without arousing suspicion, Hamlet pretends to have gone mad. Love no longer has any place in his plans for vengeance: he coldly rebuffs Ophélie, the woman who loves him. Ophélie, believing she has lost Hamlet’s love, really does go mad and drowns herself. Beside her coffin, Hamlet wreaks his revenge. He stabs Claudius with his sword and then dies himself over Ophélie’s body.
Although Ambroise Thomas had already completed the work in 1864 he did not immediately release it for performance – apparently he could not find a suitable singer for the part of Ophélie. But then he met the Swedish soprano Christine Nilsson, and with her Hamlet became a huge success at the Opéra in Paris in 1867. For the first time, a saxophone is used in an opera score; it creates the extraordinary atmosphere during the theatre scene. Especially for Nilsson, Thomas incorporated a Swedish folk song into the madness scene to add some local