Tag Archives: Allan Clayton

Hamlet collage

11 Jun

There is one unforgettable moment in Brett Dean’s new opera Hamlet, which I saw on its first night at Glyndebourne on 11 June.  This is when Sarah Connolly, as Gertrude, comes to tell Laertes of Ophelia’s death.  She sings a version of “There grows a willow…” with her usual glorious heartfelt emotion and simplicity and, as she does so, you hear Barbara Hannigan singing flashes of her mad scene from the dome.  It’s a gorgeous, moving moment which reminds why opera, as a form, gives you things that the straight theatre can’t.

Otherwise, this struck me as a very clever opera that didn’t quite explain why it needed to be written.  Matthew Jocelyn has taken the text and played about with it and those of who know the play well have a lot of fun working out what bits come from where – so “do not saw your hand in the air” is used for the duelling at the end.  It’s rare, if at all, that you get a single speech set entirely as it was.  I don’t object to that, but it is distracting to have bits of the play that you know coming up in unexpected places.  And there are lots of jokes about the different variant readings which are funny, if you get them.

What worries me more is that there isn’t really an over-arching idea to this opera.  There are a succession of more or less successful scenes and an exhausting role for the protagonist but that feels like it.  They’ve sensibly got rid of Fortinbras and the bulk of the political side of the play, but what I missed was the need for revenge or any sense of Hamlet’s vacillation or the irony associated with that.  If Hamlet isn’t a political play, it’s a revenge tragedy with some really good meditation about life and death.  Here the existential side seemed to take centre stage without the revenge plot.

It was also long and needed cutting- the performance lasted half an hour longer than Glyndebourne thought it would.  I first became aware of this in the scene where Polonius suggests that they put Ophelia in Hamlet’s way.  Aside from the tedium of Polonius (who the music makes a lot less funny than the play) there’s a sextet with comic backing for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.  They turn up in the Osric role later on (the whole bit about Hamlet being sent to England is cut) and have a silly duet about the odds.  And the play scene takes forever.  I wasn’t convinced about the need for a gravedigger.  Surely you can cut Yorick?

Dean’s music strikes me as professional.  There’s some smashing word-setting and quite a lot of others where you feel that it all feels a bit leaden.  The orchestration has a semi-chorus, antiphonal percussion and brass up on either side of the Upper Circle.  There are some nice moments, some great climaxes and quite a lot where it sounds as though it’s just grumbling in the background.  It didn’t dislike and there are moments, particularly in the second half where the things sort-of takes off.

Overall, however, this brings me back to the problems of setting the texts of Shakespeare in English.  If you don’t use the original, everyone says that the libretto isn’t as good.  If you do, then there are the problems of setting great lines that actors will generally do better.  It helps if you can condense it in a foreign language and let your version speak for itself.  This seems to me to join the group of honourable failures.  And it’s too long.

It’s pretty brilliantly done.  Neil Armfield’s production moves fluidly and, technically, is a very adept piece of work. Vladimir Jurowski conducts the LPO and the Glyndebourne chorus with huge assurance.  There wasn’t a hint of uncertainty about the performance and you felt that everyone was engaging with and utterly committed to the piece.

Allan Clayton gives a hugely energetic performance as Hamlet and sings the lines clearly, beautifully, intelligently.  What I missed, and I think this is the opera’s fault, not his, was any hint as to why we should care about him at all.  Sarah Connolly was her typically fabulous self as Gertrude.  Barbara Hannigan has a stratospheric (and very successful) mad scene for Ophelia and she pulls it off as a marvellous set-piece.  Rod Gilfry as Claudius sang clearly even if you didn’t quite get what the character was all about.  Kim Begley was a clear Polonius, but I wonder if he didn’t have too much to do.  John Tomlinson had three lovely roles as the Ghost, the First Player and the Gravedigger and was his usual, booming, hugely intelligent, charismatic self.  David Butt Philip (who will be singing Hamlet on the Tour) was excellent as Laertes.  Rupert Enticknap and Christopher Lowrey had a fine double act as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.  Maybe it’s time to give the joke that it’s impossible to tell which is which a rest.

As ever at Glyndebourne you can’t fault the sheer commitment and professionalism of the performance.  It’s given this piece the best possible send-off.  I’m simply not convinced that I really want to see it again.  Sorry.



Glyndebourne’s Lucretia returns

4 Aug

I admired Fiona Shaw’s production of Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia almost two years ago and it was good to revisit the show on 4th August as part of its Festival outing.  Even more strongly cast than the tour version, there had also been time to think further about the piece and develop the ideas.

My frustration with the libretto remains.  Even in the programme the cast were describing it as “of its time”.  I think it’s far worse than that.  It’s not just the frankly offensive Christian message at the end of the piece but the sheer ghastliness of the writing – images that make little sense, convoluted syntax and lines that seem to contradict each other.  The formal structure is quite interesting: the text vile.  As I came away, I decided that the only way to make it work would be for someone to translate it into German and perform it in that language with some hugely simplified surtitles.  I wonder how long opera companies will continue to perform it.

And yet the music is so wonderful.  There are passages where you feel that Britten never surpassed.  At this performance I was particularly struck by the oboe solo following the arrival of Collatinus in Act II.  That was fabulously well played and intensely moving.  Britten gets the atmosphere perfectly – that sultry, over-heated night at the army tents, the glory of the morning and sheer excitement of the ride to Rome.  Simply as a piece of music, this is a gem.

And it was very well performed.  It was a joy to hear the soloists of the LPO play so beautifully – I don’t think I’ve heard the piece played so intelligently and hauntingly.  Leo Hussain conducted it with huge confidence and, I thought, paced it pretty much perfectly.  My one complaint was that I felt that the ensemble before the final commentary of the Choruses could have been bigger – the feeling should be akin to the interlude in Wozzeck after the death of Marie and should leave you feeling drained and shattered.  Here it didn’t quite.  I think that was partly to do with a very quiet chamber-ish approach: soloists rarely forced and created an intimate, conversational atmosphere that felt right – but you have to get the power of that question “is it all?” a bit more strongly, I feel.

Fiona Shaw’s production is intelligent and gets some outstanding performances out of her cast.  At this performance, however, I was left wondering whether she didn’t try a bit too hard, whether the very detailed relationship and involvement of the Choruses wasn’t taken a step too far and whether this didn’t detract from the concentration on Lucretia herself.  Isn’t it slightly more chilling if they aren’t involved?  Either way, it felt like a rather busy production and just missed the cathartic intensity that I still remember from Graham Vick’s ENO production.

The cast had been significantly strengthened.  Retained from the tour welre Allan Clayton’s intelligently sung Male Chorus – I don’t think that he’s done anything better, words were clear and the variation and intensity in his singing was hugely impressive – only Anthony Rolfe-Johnson has bettered him, in my experience – Duncan Rock’s handsome and rather stupid Tarquinius and Catherine Wyn-Rogers’s Bianca.  The latter has been singing this since 1993 and gave one of those lovely performances that seemed absolutely assured and, in its way, perfect.

Christine Rice was a marvelous Lucretia coming into her own after the rape and bringing a quiet desperation that was intensely moving.  I’m not sure that even Jean Rigby managed to plumb the depths of self-disgust that Miss Rice managed: I don’t think I’ve seen a better performance from her.  Kate Royal was luxury casting as the Female Chorus and I loved the sheer ease with which she delivered the music.  This was really intelligent, beautiful singing.  Matthew Rose was an outstanding Collatinus with the right warmth of voice, intelligence and anger and acted perfectly.  I remember him and Lucretia sitting together after the rape, side by side – an unforgettable image of tenderness.  Only Daniel Sumuel struck me as slightly disappointing as Junius – the sound not as powerful as I’d have liked.

So there were wonderful things here – an inquiry, intelligent production that had moved on in the two years and gained depth.  It almost convinced me that this was a great opera – until Duncan’s text ruined it all.