From Development server
In Review > International


Glyndebourne Festival

Dean’s new Hamlet at Glyndebourne, with Connolly, Gilfry, Clayton, Begley and Hannigan
© Richard Hubert Smith

GLYNDEBOURNE STAGED its first world premiere since 2008 with the initial production of Brett Dean’s Hamlet, to a libretto by Matthew Jocelyn based on Shakespeare’s text. Given that the play is regarded—at least by the English—as the greatest ever written, one could hardly imagine a more ambitious choice of subject.

Born in Brisbane in 1961, Dean has been acclaimed internationally as a composer of skill and imagination: his period as a viola player in the Berlin Philharmonic not only testifies to his musicianship but will certainly have given him insider insights into the orchestra’s internal workings. His previous opera, Bliss—based on a novel by Peter Carey with a contemporary Australian setting—was an immediate success at its Sydney premiere in 2010 and subsequently at the Edinburgh Festival. 

The Hamlet production shared with Bliss its director (Neil Armfield) and costume designer (Alice Babidge); the rest of the central team for this modern-dress staging consisted of Ralph Myers (sets) and conductor Vladimir Jurowski, the latter formerly Glyndebourne’s music director and still the principal conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the festival’s pit orchestra. Musical values were high, and indeed from almost every point of view one could scarcely have wished a more propitious launch for the piece.

Hamlet has been set numerous times as an opera since 1706. Most versions have been completely forgotten, but there is life in Ambroise Thomas’s French grand opéra of 1868, while there have been recent revivals of Franco Faccio’s 1865 work (with a libretto by Boito) in Baltimore and Albuquerque. 

The main problems for any adapter are the sheer length of the play (four hours, if given complete) and the complexity of the action. Jocelyn cut a good deal to make his two-act version, which nevertheless ran close to four hours on opening night. 

The librettist has selected variously from the two editions of the play published in Shakespeare’s lifetime, plus the posthumous First Folio; he has also occasionally transferred text from one character to another: words originally spoken by Polonius, reading Hamlet’s letters to Ophelia, for instance, are reassigned to the counselor’s daughter herself. Despite the length of the result, and music’s tendency to slow things down, several of the major characters still felt undernourished or indeed unrepresented; Fortinbras and his invading forces disappeared entirely.

Dean’s score makes use of a substantial orchestra plus two instrumental groups placed in the auditorium and eight wordless singers in the pit. Prominent in the play-within-a-play sequence was the participation of accordionist James Crabb, who gave the scene a strikingly eerie character. In addition, there is some discreet use of electronics. The overall impression is of something frequently intricate and delicate, though not always immediately memorable.

The vocal writing—mainly conceived in a kind of free-wheeling arioso—is more rewarding, though once again it scarcely stuck in the mind. Still, all the performers threw themselves at it, as well as engaging fully in Armfield’s impressively clear production. 

Onstage for much of the show, Allan Clayton’s Hamlet was bold and tireless, though he played the part with a repetitively ironic manner; his Hamlet might have benefited from more variety. Sarah Connolly was a grandly guilty Gertrude, Rod Gilfry an uneasy Claudius. As an Ophelia replete with coloratura touches for the inevitable mad scene, Barbara Hannigan was unstinting in her commitment. Kim Begley made a memorable Polonius, while John Tomlinson made three marks, as the Ghost of Old Hamlet, the Gravedigger and Player 1. David Butt Philip was an impassioned Laertes, Jacques Imbrailo an open-hearted Horatio.  —George Hall

Follow OPERA NEWS on FacebookTwitter Button