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Brett DEAN (b. 1961)
Hamlet - Opera in two acts (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)
London Philharmonic Orchestra, Glyndebourne Chorus/Vladimir Jurowski
Neil Armfield (director), Ralph Myers (set designer), Alice Babidge (costumes),
Francois Roussillon (film director)
rec. live, 30 June & 6 July 2017, Glyndebourne, UK
OPUS ARTE OABD7231D Blu-ray [185 mins]

This production of Brett Dean’s new opera was the hit of Glyndebourne’s 2017 Festival. Hamlet was a bold choice perhaps – for many theatregoers it is the greatest playwright’s greatest play – but librettist Matthew Jocelyn’s adaptation draws on the three versions of the work that survive to craft something distinctive, taut enough to be set as a two-and-a-half-hour opera and using only Shakespeare’s words, though not of course all of them. Fortinbras and the wider political dimension are jettisoned, as sometimes in the theatre, but almost everyone else is retained. The result is a convincing libretto where the excisions, elisions, conjunctions, repetitions, re-allocations and re-sequencings from the three texts still maintain the familiar narrative (or near enough).

The music itself is tense and ear-catching from the outset, especially in the compelling orchestral writing, which has added colour from various unusual instrumental additions.
The use of a semi-chorus of eight singers placed in the pit among the orchestra is very effective. (Simon Rattle told Dean, on learning of this Glyndebourne commission, “the thing about Glyndebourne is it has one of the best opera choruses in the world.”) The vocal writing is often nervy and angular, keeping the tension high in a world with an evil deed at its heart, so depicted as nightmarish and dysfunctional from the start. It’s as if Hamlet has already been sent into England where his madness will go unnoticed as, according to the gravedigger, “they are all mad there”. They are all mad in Elsinore too, or so it sounds at times.

Even when the text gives opportunities for lyrical reflection, there is little sense of repose, or much that is truly affecting, perhaps, until later in Act 2 where, with Gertrude’s narration of Ophelia’s death and with Hamlet’s growing despair, the musical invention foretells the impending tragedy. Mostly, though, I was reminded of Joseph Kerman’s old book “Opera and Drama” whose chapter on Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande is titled ‘Opera as Sung Play’, for that is how Dean’s Hamlet comes across. Not of course because it recalls the muted colours of Debussy’s sound world but because it has the same reverence for the play, which it is reluctant to usurp and turn to its own musico-dramatic ends. Like the Debussy therefore, there are many moments where the orchestra imparts the meaning of the drama as much or more than the vocal line. There are also scenes made for vocal display, though one such, Ophelia’s mad scene – that poignant mother of all opera’s mad scenes – did not quite touch this viewer in the way that the mad scenes of Donizetti’s Lucia or Britten’s Grimes do.

Ophelia’s derangement is however a virtuoso piece of writing for the amazing Barbara Hannigan, and she is just one among a quite remarkable line-up of singers. Not many recent operas can have boasted such a consistently excellent first cast. Allan Clayton’s Hamlet is a very committed performance indeed whether singing or (surprisingly often) speaking, or something in between. Rodney Gilfry and Sarah Connolly bring vocal heft and stage presence to Claudius and Gertrude, while Jacques Imbrailo as Horatio, Kim Begley as Polonius, and David Butt Philip as Laertes show the luxury casting even in secondary parts. John Tomlinson is really made to earn his corn, singing three roles - the ghost, one of the players and the gravedigger. Two excellent counter-tenors, Rupert Enticknap and Christopher Lowrey, sing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern respectively (or “Rosenstern and Guildencrantz” as they are amusingly muddled at first by Gertrude.)

Neil Armfield’s direction is detailed and persuasive, not least in a final scene with a body count even larger than usual, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern having survived at court until this point, when Claudius uses them as human shields against Hamlet’s rapier. Ralph Myers single flexible set design has a state room made of sections that slide to enable swift transitions between scenes. Jurowski and his players clearly prepared this demanding new score scrupulously, and deliver it superbly. On Blu-ray, the 5.1 surround-sound is very impressive, as is the film editing and picture quality. The ‘extra’ features are valuable, giving much intriguing background about the conception and development of the work.

Time will tell where in the canon of Shakespearean opera Dean’s Hamlet will eventually fit. Verdi’s Otello and Falstaff and Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream are the few core repertory staples, but there is also a limbo where some anglophone adaptations of the Bard reside, awaiting rare revivals. Walton’s Troilus and Cressida (admittedly based on Chaucer’s version), and Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra lie there, but it is too soon to say the same of Adès’s The Tempest. Suffice it to say that while the jury is out, the jurists have a quite superb record of the first production to help them reach their verdict. For now, though, every opera lover should see and hear this brilliant disc of a fascinating composition caught in the white-hot moment of its creation.

Roy Westbrook


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