Note: This is a review of the performance on Friday 30th June 2017.
As Ryan Wigglesworth's Winter's Tale a few months back showed, turning Shakespeare into opera is fraught with peril. Brett Dean takes on an arguably even more formidable challenge than Wigglesworth in attempting Hamlet. There is much to admire, but as a completely satisfying opera I think this falls just a little short.
Before turning to the work itself though, the unquestionably outstanding side of the evening should be mentioned – that is the musical performances. In the punishing title role, onstage almost constantly apart from a respite at the start of Act Two, Allan Clayton is simply magnificent. He displays an impressive dynamic range, catches the famous “antic disposition” but without losing the ability to catch at the heart – notably in his relationship with Ophelia, and in the final moments of the work. Barbara Hannigan is a moving, beautifully sung Ophelia. Jacques Imbrailo is underused vocally as Horatio, but makes his limited interventions tell and adds a fine still presence to many scenes. Setting Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as a pair of counter tenors is nicely comic, and Rupert Enticknap and Christopher Lowrey are in fine vocal form. John Tomlinson can really only now do one thing vocally, but as Ghost and Gravedigger it works perfectly well (the Player King might benefit from a little more flexibility). Rounding out this fine ensemble are Rod Gilfrey's Claudius, David Butt Philip's Laertes and Sarah Connolly's Gertrude. In the pit and up in the Upper Circle the London Philharmonic and the Glyndebourne Chorus are likewise in powerful form. On the podium Vladimir Jurowski holds the whole expertly together.
A shade below the musical performances is Neil Armfeld's production, with set designs by Ralph Myers. The set is primarily one large white walled room – after the opening scene the walls turn out to be constructed in segments which break down to form other spaces within the castle. The effectiveness of this varies – the most problematic sequence comes at the end of Act One when the scenes move in rapid succession from the play within a play, to Claudius's prayer, to Gertrude's bedroom. Unfortunately the arrangement of the various walls is hardly altered across the three scenes, so locations become indistinct. It didn't help that the wall segment forming the central backdrop looked to my rather weary eye like yet another backstage space of a kind which I've seen overused in opera productions lately. Like much else, after the interval, this problem recedes – both through a visual coup involving the ceiling and the greater dramatic tautness of the work. In terms of management of personnel Armfeld is often very effective. The dynamic between Horatio and Hamlet is very well brought out. The lead up to the Hamlet/Ophelia scene creates a striking effect of a girl trapped before the eyes of all these loathsome men – and the beginning of the scene that follows as she tries to hide in an alcove singing sadly of the love that is gone is the most moving section of the whole first act. But Armfeld does make mistakes – in particular he too often resorts to having singers throw chairs across the stage to signify they are in the grip of some deep emotion, and, as with too many other versions of the play I've seen, his direction of Ophelia's madness lacks subtlety.
Finally, there's the work itself. Dean and his librettist Matthew Jocelyn often adapt the text with great success. The breaking up of the sililoquys to create an idea of a Hamlet wandering the castle arguing over and over with himself is brilliantly done. I was particularly struck by the repeated “The rest is...” They find emotion in the Ophelia/Hamlet relationship – something many productions of the play I've seen fail to do. Overall, at different points they have something insightful to communicate about nearly all the characters. Act Two is pretty nearly flawless – tightly constructed, with a number of real coups – including the choral intervention from the auditorium, the grave scene and the powerful decision to relocate “There is a divinity that shapes our ends, rough hew them how we will” to almost the end of the piece. The problem is that Act One isn't quite on the same level – it's overlong (particularly the scenes with the players), it doesn't seem to be at all sure when to stop for the interval, and the whole fails to fit together with that taut, compelling dramatic tension that Act Two has in spades. A related problem is, thoughtful and convincing as many individual character moments are, for me many of these representations don't quite fit together as a thought through whole. The final issue is the word setting as a total experience. There is a reason why, I think, the best of Britten's operas in particular continue to cast a shadow over other opera in English – that reason being because he could be such a master of setting the language. Dean eschews, for the most part, the kind of aria or ensemble familiar from traditional opera – it's more a kind of ongoing series of exchanges, fragments, interjections. These can, as I hope I've made clear, pack real punch – but, particularly in the long first half, I sometimes felt Dean was, like Wigglesworth, getting overwhelmed by the amount of text he was trying to cram in – and losing the space to really give it the added emphasis, perhaps illumination, that great word setting can find. I think this is perhaps another reason why moments such as Ophelia's repeated line about joy (I think), or Hamlet's “The rest is...” or that stunning “There is a divinity...” pack such punch – because the music lingers over them, and encourages us to linger and reflect with the characters. Again, I think a little more of that, and a little judicious cutting in Act One would have enhanced the work.
Overall, I was very glad to have seen this. The musical performances are exceptional. Act Two is one of the finest pieces of contemporary opera I've seen for some time. This new work deserves revival, and for other houses to take it up, but the authors might, as they wait for that to occur, usefully take another careful look at Act One.