Brett DEAN: Hamlet.  Allan Clayton, Sarah Connolly, Barbara Hannigan, Rod Gilfry, Rupert Enticknap, Christopher Lowrey,  John Tomlinson, London Philharmonic Orchestra; Neil Armfield, director; Vladimir Jurowski, conductor.

Run Time: 164 minutes
DVD Release Date: April 17, 2018
Video: 16:9  Color. 
Audio: Dolby, NTSC, Surround Sound
Subtitles: English, French, German, Korean
Extras: Creating a World Premiere,  A Theater of Sound.
Rating: *****

An opera based on Shakespeare’s Hamlet? Sounds like a sure thing. Great characters, engaging plot, greatest tragedy ever written . . . Somebody must have composed it. So where is it? For years Giuseppe Verdi, creator of Falstaff, Otello, and Macbeth, tried and was unable to find a suitable libretto. The French composer Ambroise Thomas did a version of Hamlet that is widely reviled, not only for its frothy music but also for the happy ending he grafted onto the piece. Francesco Gasparini’s Ambleto (Hamlet), having been played throughout Europe, was taken to London in 1712 by the celebrated castrato Nicolini where it quickly disappeared. Saverio Mercadante’s Amleto (1822), in which the part of Hamlet is sung by a woman, also rapidly vanished from the repertoire. Bizet, Berlioz, Glinka, Debussy, Mendelssohn, Prokofiev, Respighi, and Schumann all pondered setting Hamlet, only to decide it was not to be. And don’t get me started on composers who tried writing Hamlet incidental music for theater and film, like Shostakovich. It’s embarrassing; that’s all I’ll say about it.

Why? It could be because most of the opera is quite intellectual, filled with philosophical musings and not always heart-wringingly dramatic like Otello.  (Imagine setting the recorder scene to music. Yikes! It could fall flat.) Sure, there are scenes that stir the blood, but at 4,000 lines it’s Shakespeare’s only four-hour play. Another reason, according to WH Auden, is that it’s difficult for operatic characters to be seen as simultaneously good and bad. Hamlet was cruel to both his mother and Ophelia, yet dramatically justifed in seeking revenge. The one rendition from the past that did succeed, and only recently, was the revival of Franco Faccio’s Amleto (1865) by the Albuquerque Journal Theater of the National Hispanic Cultural Center in New Mexico. It’s a decent enough 19th-century work, only a notch and a half below Verdi’s in plotting and tunefullness, but it failed (twice!) in the nineteeth century because of the lead singer’s sickness.

Now we have Australian composer Brett Dean’s modernistic take on Hamlet, which premiered in 2017. Is it watchable? Yes. Dramatic? Certainly so. Adumbrated? Well, yes, to you purists, I’m afraid so. There is no Fortinbras, no Osric explaining the duel, no needling of Polonius before murdering him, no switcheroo of the letters to kill off Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. No a lot of things.

But not only it is worth seeing, it’s quite thrilling, providing you do not expect hummable melodies. The whole thing is done in atmospheric arioso style, but it has amazing moments to it. The scene with Hamlet’s father’s ghost (John Tomlinson) appearing at the beginning is chilling, with ominous music at key points. Ophelia’s mad scene, performed by the eminently frisky Barbara Hannigan, is also scary. In most of the Hamlets I’ve seen, the character is portrayed like a Pre-Raphaelite heroine, handing out flowers to Queen Gertrude and acting vaguely distracted. In this opera she is snakepit insane, writhing and spinning on the floor. It’s both a hard and fascinating thing to watch, and brands itself in your memory, in high definition.

There is also humor, and oh is it arch! In Shakespeare’s drama, when the players arrived, Hamlet tests them by seeing how well they can act certain scenes from classical literature. In Matthew Jocelyn’s libretto, they show off by quoting lines to Hamlet (Allan Clayton) from Shakespeare’s original that didn’t make it in! So they are actually are in but as oddly placed as a foot sticking out of a shoulder blade. It’s extremely funny, as are the sycophantic characterizations of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, played by two excellent countertenors,  Rupert Enticknap and Christopher Lowrey. The scene at Ophelia’s grave is well directed and sung. The interaction between Hamlet, the gravedigger, and Horatio is vivid and snappy, as is the grappling between Hamlet and Laertes in the grave. Also memorable is the scene in which Hamlet has the impending duel explained to him, not by the missing “waterfly” Osric but Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who shoes he ties together in a moment of slapstick.

There is much more about this opera that is likable and make it worth owning, but I’m going on like a tiresome party guest. What I didn’t much like was the opening scene with the dissolute court partying and carrying on that, well, carried on too long. Also, for some inexplicable reason, the leading characters are white faced. There must be a point to this, but I’m missing it.

Despite these small ticks, it’s apparent that Brett Dean has solved the problem of no lively and memorable Hamlet opera.

—Peter Bates

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