Solo soprano, 3 orchestral sopranos and orchestra

Instrumentation solo soprano; 3(3rd db. picc)/3/3 (3rd=bass cl)/3(3rd dbl. cbn); 4/3/3/1; timp + 3 perc; 3 orchestral sopranos; orchestral strings
Percussion requirements (1) crotales (share with 3), chimes (share with 3), gongs, vib (share with 2), anvil, snare dr, bass dr; (2) temple bowls, watergong, gongs, vib. (share with 1), glock, brake dr, lion’s roar, sizzle cymbal, tamtam; (3) crotales (share with 1), chimes (share with 1), flexatone, mba, brake dr, tenor dr, sizzle cymbal

Vocal Range B3 to D6

Timing ca. 16′

Composed 1994

Poems by Arthur Rimbaud

World Premiere November 9, 1994, Kulas Hall, The Cleveland Institute of Music, Cleveland, Ohio. Luanne Clarke, soprano; The Cleveland Institute of Music Symphony Orchestra; Magnus Mårtensson, conductor

Recorded by the Bowling Green Philharmonia with soprano Myra Merritt, conducted by Emily Freeman Brown, on The Composer’s Voice: New Music from Bowling Green.

Programme Notes

O, woe is me
T’ have seen what I have seen, see what I see!

(Hamlet, Act III, sc. I)

Although the legend of the Danish king Amleth can be traced back as far as the tenth century, it is through Shakespeare’s tragedy Hamlet that the character of Ophelia is best known to us today. However, in the many different recorded versions of the legend, much of the detail of Ophelia’s involvement is left open to interpretation. She may have been a willing accomplice in the plot against Hamlet, or she may have been an innocent pawn. She either loved him in naïveté, or she used her “feminine charms” to drive the prince to madness. Did an insane Hamlet court the young Ophelia, or did Ophelia fall under the spell of Hamlet’s feigned madness? The tale is told differently by different writers. At any rate, in Shakespeare’s reading, Hamlet further complicates Ophelia’s life by murdering her father, the Lord Chamberlain; and whether it is from guilt, love, naïveté, confusion, grief, or the cumulative effect of all of the above, Ophelia herself goes mad, and meets her fate while picking flowers by the river, when she falls into the water, and drowns under the weight of her sodden robes.

Madness, the psyche, the supernatural, woman as temptress and angel — these ideas captured the imaginations of the Symbolist poets and artists in the late nineteenth century. The image of Ophelia, floating serenely down the river, surrounded by white robes and garlands of flowers, was a powerful image indeed for artists like Odilon Redon and poets like Arthur Rimbaud.

In Rimbaud’s set of three poems Ophélie, the innocent Ophelia appears as a pale white ghost, repeating her fateful journey night after night, forever a restless spirit. In this single-movement setting, the soprano soloist is at once an observer of the apparition, and Ophelia herself. After an orchestral prelude, Ophelia appears, singing to herself, blissfully unaware of her fate, while the voices of her madness swirl around her. As the second poem begins, the river rises to meet her, and she is engulfed by the waters. As she is swept away, the orchestra takes over with a climactic interlude, which leads into the final poem, a mysterious invocation of Ophelia’s image. Finally, the orchestra fades away as the ghost of Ophelia drifts silently into the night.


Jeffrey Ryan wrote his setting of Rimbaud’s Ophélie … as a study for a projected opera. The essentially lyric line of the singer, the very fine Myra Merritt, is set in a dissonant kaleidoscope that reflects the character’s disordered mind. It is, as the composer intended, very operatic and very effective. The imaginative use of orchestra and accompanying voices is particularly striking. A good friend of mine who happened to be listening with me and who also happens to be a very fine tenor, immediately wondered what sort of music the composer would write for his voice. That says more than anything I could say about the immediacy of Ryan’s music. (John Story/Fanfare)

[Ryan] surrounded the voice of Hamlet’s love (Monica Whicher) with the swirling voices of her madness … and clothed them in turn with the full Jacob’s coat of the orchestra. Not only was the orchestral writing dramatically potent, the vocal writing captured the haunted quality of Rimbaud’s verses … with uncanny truthfulness. (William Littler/Toronto Star)

Ryan’s Ophélie is a disturbing dramatic centerpiece to the collection.” (Records International Catalogue/February 1999)

…a mad orchestral Bergian romp… (Mark Alburger/21st-Century Music)

PDF perusal score

Ophelie score perusal


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