Brett DEAN (b. 1961)
Hamlet - opera in two acts after Shakespeare to a libretto by Matthew Jocelyn (2017) [164 mins]
Allan Clayton (Hamlet), Sarah Connolly (Gertrude), Barbara Hannigan (Ophelia), Rod Gilfry (Claudius), Kim Begley (Polonius), John Tomlinson (Ghost/Grave-Digger/Player-King), Jacques Imbrailo (Horatio), David Butt Philip (Laertes), Rupert Enticknap (Rosencrantz) Christopher Lowrey (Guildenstern)
London Philharmonic Orchestra, Glyndebourne Chorus/Vladimir Jurowski
Neil Armfield (director), Ralph Myers (set designer), Alice Babidge (costumes),
Francois Roussillon (film director)
rec. June & July 2017, Glyndebourne, Sussex, UK
sung in English
Audio formats: Dolby digital stereo and DTS digital surround
OPUS ARTE DVD OA1254D [185 mins]
While the adaptation of Hamlet for contemporary operatic purposes may seem a profoundly ambitious undertaking, in one of the brief extras that supplement the main offering on this DVD, composer Brett Dean and librettist Matthew Jocelyn discuss the idea that there’s no such thing as the ‘definitive’ Hamlet, noting the existence of various quartos and editions of the play. They are rightly getting their retaliation in first, anticipating the inevitable criticisms of a “X doesn’t say that in the play, Y does” or “they’ve left all of this bit/that bit out” type. They make the point that the language of the bard is so extraordinary, any artificial addition will only dilute its impact, and with this in mind Jocelyn’s final libretto is pure Shakespeare, drawn from the various original ‘editions’ of Hamlet, albeit with much of the material omitted, lines from time to time redistributed among the characters, and the occasional re-sequencing of events. As if to reinforce this, at a later point in the same feature the conductor Vladimir Jurowski refers very clearly and unambiguously to “Brett Dean and Matthew Jocelyn’s Hamlet”. Given that one’s individual response to this most ‘psychological’ of all of Shakespeare’s plays will inevitably be unique, while I can understand the wariness of the opera’s ‘authors’, I think their joint approach to turning Hamlet into an opera is revealed on this disc to be both eminently practical and artistically sound. While one doesn’t end up (at least on first hearing) humming any tunes, it is quite unforgettable. Even watching it in my living room felt like an ‘event’. It is certainly hard to imagine that this Hamlet won’t ultimately become one of the few operas that ‘define’ the first two decades of the 21st century, alongside, perhaps, Pascal Dusapin’s Passion, George Benjamin’s Written on Skin and possibly Gyorgy Kurtag’s recently premiered Fin de Partie (I haven’t actually heard this latter suggestion, but neither have I encountered a single negative review….).
While I wouldn’t claim complete indifference to (or ignorance of) the works of William Shakespeare I am not naturally drawn to them, but I had the great good fortune to marry a woman who’s something of a specialist and who was happy to share her considerable insights concerning Hamlet. Moreover she is not someone who would describe herself (by any means) as an aficianado of contemporary art music, and thus it was an instructive delight to experience this opera with her. I was particularly interested to see whether the textual adaptations discussed above would infringe on her experience, and curious as to whether she would be able to endure almost three hours of what is on any level pretty challenging music. This Hamlet then would be a shared venture.
At around 100 minutes, the first act is almost twice the length of the second. From its opening bars, and the low eerie rumbles which filled our living room until the curtain at its end it is no exaggeration to say we were both absolutely riveted, and emotionally drained by the time the interval arrived. After tea (by golly we needed it!), we were ready for the second act. There are occasional light moments, mostly involving the pomposity of Polonius (a splendid turn from Kim Begley) or the over-unctuous and obsequious Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, whose tricky parts are superbly sung (mostly in tandem) and acted by the counter-tenors Rupert Enticknap and Christopher Lowrey. But inevitably a pretty grim atmosphere hangs over much of this opera, although Dean’s music is so richly coloured throughout that one’s interest in it never palls. While my love of music is the primary justification for this review, uniquely from a personal perspective I actually found myself almost more captivated by the stage action in this piece and by the extraordinary acting skills of all the principals.
As far as the music is concerned, Dean is extraordinarily resourceful in terms of his handling of the orchestra. He has invented a number of weird and atmospheric percussion effects some of which are demonstrated in the extra features. His use of electronics is both masterly and discreet, and there is a fascinating part for a solo accordionist (the estimable James Crabb) who performs on stage as part of the group of actors (and provides further moments of levity). Dean’s writing for the semi-chorus (who are situated in the pit with the orchestra) could perhaps be described as ‘spectral close harmony’ – its engaging creepiness literally sends shivers down one’s spine. The long lines written for the solo singers involve what seems like incredible virtuosity – and to my ears not one of the principals falls short in their attempts to overcome the expressive and technical challenges they face. Sir John Tomlinson is unsurprisingly the scene-stealer-in-chief, in all three (!) of his roles; his unearthly bass touches on sprechgesang at times (he offers a splendid insight into this in the extra feature) but the most dazzlingly elastic and acrobatic singing comes courtesy of the ever-astonishing Barbara Hannigan’s unforgettably disturbing Ophelia; her theatricality is once again beyond amazing. I imagine that nobody who witnesses her ‘mad scene’ will remain untouched by it, nor forget it in a hurry. Hannigan is a force of energy, a singer of singular technical ability and an actress of visionary daring. Dean and Jocelyn’s conception of Ophelia is absolutely perfect for her, and she for it.
In truth though, this production is dominated by Allan Clayton’s turn as Hamlet. It is a monumental and heroic effort. He is virtually omnipresent in Act One and while his singing part strikes one as exceptionally difficult, he projects Hamlet’s full emotional ambit in music that veers between the violent and the fragile, that is always expressive and often profoundly moving. Dean’s music for him, incorporates anguished melody, straight speech and at times unhinged rambling. If there is real excellence in his singing, however, his acting is absolutely outstanding. The composer makes the point in the extra feature that he believes that Clayton could take on the same role in the actual play and carry it off, and this was certainly something that struck my wife, a regular visitor to Stratford. Clayton has seemingly unlimited reserves of physical and emotional energy, a thought that’s brought home in the bloodbath that concludes the extraordinarily choreographed duel (with the splendid David Butt Phillip’s thoughtful and nuanced Laertes) at the end of the opera, when as the final words of the synopsis remind us “many deaths ensue”. By that point I should imagine that most of the Glyndebourne audience needed a stiff drink and a lie down, but there is Clayton, whizzing around the stage like a dervish, brandishing his foil, before dying what must be a particularly prolonged, draining death. “The rest is silence” indeed. And to think I’ve almost concluded this review without even mentioning the wondrous Dame Sarah Connolly whose Gertrude combines dignity, pathos and not unsurprisingly some wonderful singing.
We were both most taken by the austere elegance of Ralph Myers’ set designs and the seamlessness of the scene changes between the palatial grandiosity of the state rooms at Elsinore, the loneliness of the bed-chamber and the eeriness of the graveside. Yet this is an opera that cries out to be heard as well as seen – under Neil Armfield’s visceral and fast-moving direction there’s so much happening onstage it is barely possible to absorb all of Dean’s superbly varied, accomplished and unsettling orchestral writing in a single encounter. I would like to listen to the music, all of it, isolated from the visuals. My wife didn’t baulk at it at any stage, which is a massive tribute to Dean’s skill as a composer, and to Vladimir Jurowski’s ability to pull all the strands together in a performance of unceasing momentum and outstanding cogency.
It almost goes without saying that this Opus Arte DVD boasts superb sound whether through two speakers or via DTS surround, where Dean’s electronics truly come to life. My colleague Roy Westbrook’s warmly eloquent review of the equivalent Blu-Ray addresses the excellence of those cast members I haven’t found room to mention and I hope there is a degree of comprehensiveness when readers compare his thoughts with mine. Our ultimate message is pretty unambiguous though; it would be a madness in excess of Hamlet and Ophelia’s combined to miss this magnificent new opera in either format.
Previous review (Blu-ray): Roy Westbrook