Tag Archives: Brett Dean

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.

 

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