Hamlet

The characters

Hamlet

Hamlet

Hamlet (tenor)

  • Introspective
  • Erratic
  • Bitter

Operatic heroes traditionally tend to be tenors, but contrast the normal heroic, showy type of tenor-writing you might get in Verdi or Rossini – full of virtuoso technique and big, lyrical arias – with Brett Dean’s much more exploratory, dramatic style of tenor-writing for Hamlet.

Look at how often Hamlet’s solo passages are accompanied by the wordless chorus of eight singers in the orchestra pit. While they have no official or fixed symbolism, their voices are often associated through the opera with madness and provide what almost seems to be the sound of Hamlet’s thoughts – a musical window into his troubled mind.

While Hamlet doesn’t have as much extended vocal technique as Ophelia, his role still requires some unusual effects and textures. Quite often he slips between spoken word and song and back again within the space of a few bars. The effect is almost improvisatory, mirroring Hamlet’s fast-moving thoughts. It also mirrors the character’s mental decline; if music is the currency of the operatic world, then his frequent departures into speech show him losing his grip on that reality and those social conventions.

Ophelia

Ophelia

Ophelia (soprano)

  • Innocent
  • Sincere
  • Unstable

Hamlet’s beloved Ophelia is a character whose dramatic importance to Shakespeare’s tragedy doesn’t translate into many spoken lines. Composer Brett Dean and librettist Matthew Jocelyn have developed her more fully in their opera by borrowing text from elsewhere and putting it into her mouth, most strikingly allowing her to “speak” after death in a way she cannot in the play. She emerges as a stronger, more assertive, more contemporary character in this version as a result.

Ophelia wears her heart on her sleeve, and her emotional shifts are all mirrored audibly in her music. When Hamlet rejects her in the Letter Scene (Act 1 Scene 4), Ophelia is so shocked and horrified that she can barely express herself. Her music, previously lyrical and expressed in long, arching phrases, becomes fragmented and leaps erratically about from the very top to the bottom of her register. Even words are beyond her, and instead of full singing tone we get noises – clusters of consonants “ghghgh” that are more like the cries of a wounded animal than conventional singing.

The defining scene for Ophelia is her mad scene in Act II. Highly virtuosic and incredibly demanding for the singer, it’s a musical portrait of a woman on the brink of suicide. Look at the scene’s episodic structure – Ophelia wanders erratically from musical thought to thought without logic, returning almost obsessively to the “love” music of Act I in her phrases ‘But for the joyful hope of this’ and ‘Never doubt I love’.

 

Claudius

Claudius

Claudius (baritone)

  • Ambitious
  • Unscrupulous
  • Scheming

Unscrupulous murderer Claudius, who is willing to kill his brother in order to marry his wife and gain the throne, offers some of the opera’s most distinctive musical moments. We see him mostly in his smoothed-out public persona; the Claudius of Act I is plausible as a monarch – calm, measured, authoritative in his musical persona, compared to the already unstable Hamlet.

However the confession scene at the end of Act I reveals Claudius’s inner turmoil. Brass instruments and trumpet fanfares might suggest kingly authority, but their insistence here seems almost compensatory – as though Claudius is putting on a show, acting a role, behaving musically like he thinks kings should behave, rather than actually owning the role.

 

Gertrude

Gertrude

Gertrude (mezzo-soprano)

  • Shallow
  • Self-interested
  • Weak

Gertrude is a fascinating character because we’re never quite sure what she knows, thinks or feels about Claudius’s murder of her husband, King Hamlet. Does she willingly and deliberately look the other way, suppressing her suspicions, or is she genuinely unaware of the plot, blinded by her love for Claudius?

Brett Dean’s Gertrude gives more away than her Shakespearean counterpart. Her music is some of the sweetest and most lyrical in the opera. There’s an ingenuous quality, a simplicity to it that points towards her innocence. Listen to the empathy and gentle, songlike beauty of her ‘There is a willow’ – the aria she sings in response to Ophelia’s death.

 

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (countertenors)

  • Shallow
  • Affected
  • Disingenuous

In Baroque opera the male alto voice (countertenor) was associated with masculinity and heroism. In contemporary opera that perception has shifted, and more often the voice-type is more often associated with strange, unusual or weak characters. Here, Dean uses the countertenor voice to capture the affectation and silliness of these two would-be courtiers.

Shakespeare’s play makes a joke of the fact that no one can tell Hamlet’s university friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern apart. Brett Dean reinforces this idea musically by setting the roles for the same voice-type and writing music for the pair that is often an exact canon or a close imitation of one another, a sort of musical Tweedledum and Tweedledee.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s music stands apart from all around it for its fussiness, its sheer number of notes. The two characters sustain an almost constant echoing chatter, whose meaningless ornamentation and complexity points to their social pretensions and self-importance.

 

The story

Act I

Scene 1: The funeral I

King Hamlet’s funeral has come to a close, and his son Hamlet is left alone at the graveside, contemplating human frailty. He remembers his father’s goodness and virtue. The wedding of Hamlet’s mother Gertrude to King Hamlet’s brother Claudius follows quickly after the funeral, and Hamlet, lost in thought, is suddenly surrounded by revellers.

Scene 2: The Wedding

Claudius proposes a toast to his new bride. Among the wedding guests are Laertes and his sister Ophelia, who is in love with Hamlet. Laertes worries that it is just a casual flirtation for the Prince, and warns his sister. Laertes asks and receives Claudius’s permission to leave Denmark for France. Hamlet’s friends, Horatio and Marcellus, arrive from Wittenberg, but Hamlet is distracted and agitated – upset by the sudden wedding. He sees a vision of his dead father. Horatio and Marcellus tell him that they too have seen the dead king and all three plan to watch again for the ghost that night.

Scene 3: The visitation

The ghost appears and beckons Hamlet to follow him. The ghost tells Hamlet that his death was not a natural one, that he was murdered by Claudius. Hamlet is horrified and full of rage – both at Claudius himself, and his own mother for succumbing to her lust and marrying him so soon. The ghost orders Hamlet to take revenge, and Hamlet swears that he will.

 

Scene 4: The conspiracy theory

Hamlet’s university friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, arrive at Claudius’s invitation. He hopes Hamlet’s friends will discover the reason for his anger. Polonius, father of Laertes and Ophelia, interjects – he knows the cause of Hamlet’s mood, he is in love with Ophelia. He summons her to explain. She does, and they resolve to put her account to the test. They set up a meeting between the lovers, which Polonius will secretly observe.

Hamlet is lost in thought. Interrupted by Ophelia he spurns her violently, denying that he ever loved her or wrote her letters. Disturbed by his rejection she retreats into her head, clinging to the hope of love. Ever the optimist, Polonius also remains stubbornly positive of a happy resolution.

 

 

Scene 5: The players

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern meet Hamlet, who is immediately suspicious of their unexpected arrival, believing them to be in league with his uncle. Polonius interrupts them to announce that a troupe of actors has arrived in Elsinore. Hamlet asks them to insert a scene into their play mimicking Claudius’s murder of King Hamlet, and they agree.

Hamlet talks to Horatio, explaining his hope that Claudius’s reaction to the play will reveal his guilt. He plans to watch him closely, and look for signs.

 

Scene 6: The play’s the thing

The court is assembled to watch the play. Hamlet is manic and excitable, teasing Ophelia and his mother, but his humour has a bitter cruelty to it. The play unfolds, and when the murder takes place Claudius is visibly unsettled. Suddenly he rises and leaves, bringing the performance to an abrupt close. The court follows him, and Hamlet is left alone. Gleeful, he vows revenge, convinced that the ghost has spoken the truth.

 

Scene 7: The confession

Claudius is alone, praying. Hamlet enters, unnoticed by Claudius, and overhears him confessing to his brother’s murder. Hamlet prepares to kill Claudius then and there but then doubts himself – unable to kill the king while he is at prayer. He decides instead to choose another moment, and goes to speak to his mother and warn her of Claudius’s wickedness.

Scene 8: Murder and incest

Hamlet enters his mother’s room, unaware that Polonius is concealed and listening to their conversation. Gertrude reproaches Hamlet, telling him how angry he has made Claudius. Hamlet brushes her aside and, hearing a noise and believing it to be Claudius, suddenly lashes out, stabbing Polonius through the curtain he is still hiding behind. Polonius dies, and a horrified Gertrude is now confronted by Hamlet, who tells her of Claudius’s part in her husband’s death and accuses her of incest for marrying her dead husband’s brother.

The ghost of Hamlet’s father appears, reproaching Hamlet – why has he delayed so long in taking revenge? Hamlet promises to take action. Gertrude cannot see the ghost, and is convinced of her son’s madness. The Act ends with Hamlet leaving the room, dragging the dead body of Polonius after him.

 

Act II

Scene 9: Madness and mad plans

Laertes returns to Elsinore to avenge his father Polonius’s death. The people of Elsinore look to him as a leader, threatening Claudius’s leadership. But Claudius manages to harness Laertes to his own political cause by telling him that Hamlet is the guilty one and persuading him to kill the prince, promising to conceal Laertes’ crime.

Ophelia enters, seemingly driven mad with grief at Hamlet’s rejection and her father’s death. Laertes is horrified by what he sees, which only reinforces his resolve to kill Hamlet.

Gertrude enters with the news that Ophelia is dead – she has drowned herself in a nearby stream.

 

Scene 10: The funeral II

Hamlet and Horatio enter a graveyard where a gravedigger is working. Asked by Hamlet whose grave he is digging, they exchange some darkly humorous conversation. It then becomes evident that the grave belongs to Ophelia, whose funeral the two men have inadvertently stumbled upon.

The courtly funeral procession enters, and Hamlet encounters Laertes, provoking him to fresh anger, despite Gertrude’s attempt to calm the situation.

 

Scene 11: The wager

Sent by Claudius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern go to Hamlet to set the king’s plan in motion. They tell him that Claudius has made a wager that Hamlet would beat Laertes in a duel. Hamlet accepts the challenge and agrees to fight. The court assembles to see the duel.

Scene 12: Death

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern distribute the foils. Claudius arranges it so that Laertes fights with one whose tip has been dipped in poison, and has also poisoned a cup of wine that he intends to offer the prince. But Gertrude drinks from the cup before Claudius can prevent her. Laertes wounds Hamlet, but in the scuffle they swap rapiers.

The queen collapses to the floor and dies, but not before revealing that the cup of wine was poisoned. Laertes also collapses and dies. Hamlet rushes at Claudius, but stabs Rosencrantz and Guildenstern instead. He then kills Claudius before dying himself.

 

The Music

Brett Dean’s score for Hamlet is strikingly rich and multi-layered, making use of huge orchestral forces as well as a large cast and chorus. The percussion section, in particular, is unusually large, including objects like plastic bottles, foil, sandpaper and even a frying pan alongside more conventional instruments. The effect is to blur the divide between sound and music, between the everyday and the supernatural or the imagined.

In addition to the main orchestra, Hamlet also has two additional “satellite” bands (each comprising a trumpet, clarinet and percussion) positioned on either side of the top gallery of the theatre, and a semichorus of eight singers in the orchestra pit. The effect is of immersive, surround-sound - the whole auditorium becomes the stage, with the audience at the centre, invited musically into Hamlet’s mind.

One of the most unusual aspects of the score is the use of electronics. Dean recorded acoustic sounds, then sampled and distorted them to help create the supernatural soundworld of Hamlet’s dead father. These electronics provide an instrumental voice without a body - a musical metaphor for the Ghost.

Music is very much a mirror to character in Hamlet. We know from his first fussy, prolonged phrase that Polonius is a windbag, just as the giddy chatter of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern gives away their superficiality. Lovers Hamlet and Ophelia sometimes share a musical style, revealing their emotional connection, while Claudius, the usurper-king, sings with the exaggerated correctness and formality of an actor speaking a part.

What Hamlet the opera does that Hamlet the play cannot is offer us two simultaneous worlds: the spoken world of interaction, reflected in the singers’ music, and the inner world of thought and emotion reflected in the orchestra. Sometimes the one echoes the other, but more often it contradicts or subverts speech, giving us a window into the contradictions of the court of Elsinore.

Musical Highlights

'To be or not to be…'

Shakespeare’s soliloquies trace the passage of thoughts through Hamlet’s mind, and Dean’s music here captures that spirit of spontaneity and fluidity. The vocal line – initially fragmented into tiny, disconnected utterances – gradually blooms into longer and more developed musical thoughts.

The orchestral sounds that are wrapped around Hamlet’s soliloquy invite us into his head. The textures are deliberately disorienting – dynamics are extremely quiet, textures blurred, and there are lots of unfamiliar colours from tuned percussion. This blurring between reality and illusion provides a musical mirror to Hamlet’s state of mind.

The contrast between Hamlet’s music and Ophelia’s when she enters later in the scene is marked. Hamlet’s is erratic, but has a clear sense of progression and agency. Ophelia’s gets stuck in looping repetitions of a single musical thought, as though she cannot bear to let go of the idea of his love.

The first appearance of the Ghost

What does a ghost sound like? That’s the question composer Brett Dean both asks and answers in this atmospheric episode. The composer deliberately destabilises his listeners. The everyday world of Hamlet, Horatio and Marcellus retreats musically into the background – fixed pitches become approximate, sung lines dissolve into single notes – pushed aside by the growing power of the orchestra and the semichorus.

With the arrival of the ghost, a dark musical world is suddenly illuminated. Tuned percussion glitters and glints – a blinding flash of orchestral light that erupts out of the seething weirdness of the semichorus’s wordless ticks and whispers. Brass arrives to add depth and menace, and the high-lying writing for the semichorus (sounding closer to screams or wails than conventional singing) brings a new level of hysteria and intensity to the scene.

Finally, Dean adds humming, pulsing tremolo chords. This faltering, flickering texture captures both the otherworldly quality of the ghost and the racing pulse and nervous energy of Hamlet himself.

Recommended links

 See Hamlet on Tour this autumn

 Watch Hamlet the animated story

Read more: Introducing... Hamlet on Tour 

Explore more interactive opera guides

Back to top