Brett Dean - Hamlet
Neil Armfield, Vladimir Jurowski, Allan Clayton, Barbara Hannigan, Sarah Connolly, Rod Gilfry, John Tomlinson, Kim Begley, David Butt Philip, Jacques Imbrailo, Rupert Enticknap, Christopher Lowrey
Medici - 6th July 2017
The creation of a new opera based on 'Hamlet' is no minor event in the opera calendar and with all eyes on Glyndebourne and a streamed live performance of the new works, there must be considerable pressure to do this Shakespeare work right and make an impact. All credit to the creators and performers involved then, since Brett Dean's Hamlet proves to be a not only a very good adaptation of Shakespeare but a strong operatic drama in its own right.
The challenge with making an opera out of 'Hamlet' would I imagine be much the same as any other many attempts to adapt Shakespeare, only more so. It involves keeping the essence and tone of the work intact, while having to make drastic cuts, and 'Hamlet' is one of Shakespeare's longest, most complex and surely difficult plays to work with, involving such difficult choices even for the dramatic stage.
As with Ambroise Thomas's Hamlet, it's essential to keep key scenes and speeches, but that alone is not enough - certainly not in the case of Thomas. Brett Dean and his librettist Matthew Jocelyn however have one major advantage over most other opera adaptations of Shakespeare in that they can retain much of the original English text and the rich poetry of the original. Dean's Hamlet then is not exactly word-for-word, but often close to the original, paying particularly attention to the delivery of the play's most famous and important lines.
The other critical factor in making it work as a dramatic piece which can't be underestimated (and again something that applies equally to any performance of the stage play), is finding capable performers with the ability to breathe life and personality into the characters. With an extraordinarily strong cast that includes Allan Clayton, Barbara Hannigan, Rod Gilfry, Sarah Connolly and John Tomlinson, Glyndebourne's world premiere performances certainly have the strongest assembly of singers possible for these roles.
Allan Clayton gives it everything as Hamlet, but crucially finds that essential need to make the Prince's wilful madness sympathetic and not just morbidly obsessive or a raging madman. To do that, you also have to make Claudius and Gertrude convincing and - critically - establish those connections and contrasts of outlook in their interaction. This is something that is brought out not only through the medium of Ophelia (played with agonising sincerity and determination by the outstanding Barbara Hannigan who brings the mad scene back into modern opera in a spectacular fashion) and her father Polonious, but also by the supporting characters (in the fullest sense of supporting and character) by Horatio, by Laertes and even by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
Essentially then, there are no 'supporting characters' as such, as its the interaction between them all that creates a complex situation of conflicting purposes and personalities. And the Glyndebourne casts it as such with Rod Gilfry and Sarah Connolly stamping their personality all over Claudius and Gertrud with tremendous singing performances, but also with the likes of Jacques Imbrailo singing Horatio, Kim Begley as Polonious and John Tomlinson singing the ghost of Hamlet's father, one of the players and the gravedigger. All of these figures could easily be side-lined by the need to cut and condense, but it's to the credit of the opera that there is recognition that they are not just there to provide colour, but have a vital dramatic role to play in the work.
The question remains however whether Shakespeare gains anything from being adapted to the opera stage, and perhaps it never really does. The real question however is whether - again like any stage production of the play - it serves the work and can bring a certain character of its own to bear on a great work. Musically, Dean's music rarely calls attention to itself, and certainly doesn't over-assert itself over the inherent force of the drama and the language, but rather it controls mood and pacing, hinting at deeper tensions and stirring trouble, bringing some dramatic emphasis where necessary. It does well in the manner that the music and repetition can highlight certain words and phrases, overlaying them in a way that traditional theatre cannot to bring opposing views into even starker contrast.
Brett Dean's Hamlet can then be quite difficult to follow in a single viewing, even for those familiar with the play. Actually, familiarity with 'Hamlet' can even make things more difficult, since you find yourself looking for dramatic cuts and variances, looking for interpretation of familiar themes and considering how it measures up to the original. That can lead to the music not being given the same due attention for the role it plays that the singing performances receive, but together there is no question that Dean's Hamlet grips and holds attention and relates the story of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark with considerable fidelity as a good opera drama, as well as having something of its own to contribute to its telling. The finale, as good a measure of a 'Hamlet' as any other scene, is outstandingly staged and musically set. All the more for having Rosencrantz and Guildenstern die an on-stage death at this point along with almost everyone else.
The stage direction of Neil Armfield and the conducting of Vladimir Jurowski have no small part to play in the success of the endeavour. The set design is all tall panels from a rich mansion that shift and slide to reveal the darkness behind, the opera flowing seamlessly from one scene to the next. The costumes are modern-dress, the nobles wearing suits and formal dresses, the others a little shabbier, with Hamlet and Ophelia's descents into madness (whether feigned or real) reflected in the increasing disarray of their outfits. Everyone is pale pansticked white-faced. It's a thoroughly nightmarish 'Hamlet' world. Jurowski handles the complexities and lovely idiosyncrasies of the musical arrangements well, the score and the performances allowing the qualities of the libretto and the singing the fullest expression.
Links: Glyndebourne, Medici