Brett Dean’s Hamlet (online opera review)

It’s summer festival season, that glorious time of year when Europe (and even parts of the US) are bursting with so much opera that it’s impossible to choose where to go. Fortunately for those of us who don’t have the time or money to fly around the world chasing our favorite performers or the most interesting premieres, some houses stream their performances online. Currently (through July 13th), Glyndebourne has Brett Dean’s new Hamlet available for free. I watched and was very impressed: this is a new opera I expect to have staying power.

Claudius (Rod Gilfry) and Hamlet (Allan Clayton). Photographer: Richard Hubert Smith

The brilliance of this adaptation by composer Brett Dean and librettist Matthew Jocelyn is that it both is and isn’t Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The basic plot outlines are there: the vengeful ghost, the dallying Hamlet, the mad Ophelia, the deadly duel. Shakespeare’s familiar words are also there, but they’ve been all mixed up and reassigned. The players throw out snippets of well-known monologues (and, in a clever joke for the scholars in the audience, even argue editions — “solid flesh” or “sullied flesh”?). Hamlet delivers his acting instructions as dueling instructions, to Laertes, and dying asks Horatio to tell his story “trippingly on the tongue”. The play has been more than just cut down to operatic size; it has been audaciously reworked.

And it works. The drama of the opera is visceral, more so even than many good productions of the play I have seen. (And as the daughter of two actors, trust me, I have seen a lot of Hamlets.) The resulting text is dense, and the faster pace of the plot gives the tragedy momentum. Hamlet’s own sense of the inevitable end is catching; you see the disasters pile up and watch with breathless anticipation for the next one.

Horatio (Jacques Imbrailo), Gravedigger (John Tomlinson) and Hamlet (Allan Clayton). Photographer: Richard Hubert Smith

Dean’s score doesn’t contain any melodies you’ll leave humming. His Hamlet has the feel of a spoken play; the music heightens the emotion without ever breaking free of the text. The orchestral parts are full of slippery descending lines that add to the jarring sense of something rotten in Denmark. Much of the score is erratic, staccato sequences of notes rather than melodies, per se. The vocal writing seems difficult, long on wide intervals and short on tonal resolution. It allows the words and characters to be perceived clearly. Sometimes its relationship to the text is tongue-in-cheek. For instance, Polonius gets a long-held and heavily ornamented “I” when he protests, “I will be brief”. The most interesting parts for voice are the ensembles: the chorus’s whispers and echoes and the intricately layered mini-sextet on “the very ecstasy of love”.

It’s hard to imagine future productions of Hamlet assembling a cast this good. (One luxury of new operas is the ability to tailor parts for the premiere cast.) Allan Clayton’s Hamlet teeters on the verge between pensive and half-crazed — terribly moving when he loses his fragile control over himself, such as at Ophelia’s grave. His gruff, expressive tenor covers a wide range (even briefly ascending into falsetto). His sound is harsher and more solid than I would have expected from the wavering character of Hamlet, yet Clayton makes it fit perfectly. The other stand-out of the opera is Barbara Hannigan’s Ophelia. Her transformation from meek, obedient, and primly dressed to dirty, bawdy, and nearly naked is an impressive feat of acting. Even more impressive are her vocal gymnastics. She navigates tricky intervals, wobbly lines, and a part that goes from stratospheric heights to chesty growls.

Polonius (Kim Begley) and Ophelia (Barbara Hannigan). Photographer: Richard Hubert Smith

Baritone Rod Gilfry makes a stately Claudius, composed in public and wracked with doubt when alone. Sarah Connolly sings Gertrude with a rich mezzo and an air of confused naiveté. The two monarchs frequently echo and overlap one another, and their tones mesh well. Rupert Enticknap and Christopher Lowrey are perfect as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern — chirpy countertenors with blank faces who can do nothing by flatter superiors and fawningly repeat trite phrases. Only Kim Begley’s Polonius disappoints: the tenor delivers every line as an unpleasant bellow.

The production (by director Neil Armfield, set designer Ralph Myers, and costumer Alice Babidge) serves the brisk pace of the action. The sense of place is fluid. Scenes flow together without pause, and a singer can move from outdoors to indoors with just the change of the set around him. Walls appear and melt away. The clothing is modern rather than Elizabethan, yet it feels neutral — the story is timeless and placeless rather than Danish or now. The singers’ faces are painted white, as though they are pale from the horror of the tragedy past and to come. It complements the relentless eeriness of the score.

Gertrude (Sarah Connolly) and Claudius (Rod Gilfry). Photographer: Richard Hubert Smith

It’s odd that there is not yet a definitive opera of Hamlet. Boito’s is probably most well-known, but it is rarely performed. (I’ve heard there are good reasons, though I have yet to judge for myself. I will see it for the first time at West Edge Opera in August!) Dean’s might well be the adaptation we’ve been waiting for. I hope it finds its way to a stage near me soon.