sun 21/07/2024

Hamlet, Glyndebourne review - integrity if not genius in Brett Dean's score | reviews, news & interviews

Hamlet, Glyndebourne review - integrity if not genius in Brett Dean's score

Hamlet, Glyndebourne review - integrity if not genius in Brett Dean's score

Total work of art status for this labour of love on a fascinating but flawed new opera

Jacques Imbrailo's Laertes and Allan Clayton's Hamlet listen to the skull-tossing Gravedigger (John Tomlinson)All images by Bill Knight

Nature’s germens tumble all together rather readily in more recent operatic Shakespeare. Following the overblown storm before the storm of Reimann’s Lear and the premature angst of Ryan Wigglesworth’s The Winter’s Tale, what's rotten in the state of Denmark rushes to the surface a little too quickly in Brett Dean's bold new take on the most challenging of all the tragedies.

This is an impressive labour of love from all concerned at a level which only Glyndebourne at its best can manage, led with supreme authority by conductor Vladimir Jurowski and director Neil Armfield. Yet the score worries itself close to death very soon and, even if the pace, the dynamics and the moods become more varied as a long but never otiose evening progresses, it ultimately falls short of essential pity and terror.

There is total integrity, but not genius. For that, perhaps, a more daring paraphrase of Hamlet’s gist would have been necessary. Imagine, for instance, what a filleted Gerald Barry treatment might have made of the existential absurdities (a wacky Soviet production of the 1930s with music by the young Shostakovich suggests a fascinating precedent). Instead, despite the opening “…or not to be” putting the spotlight immediately on Allan Clayton’s charismatic protagonist (pictured below with Kim Begley's Polonius and Rod Gilfry's Claudius), Matthew Jocelyn’s skilful libretto stays faithful to the flabbergasting text and the drama’s trajectory. Sometimes characters purloin others’ lines; there is a metaphysical chorus, and short ensembles, from trios to sextets, that are perhaps the least successful aspect of the writing in their amorphousness.

Allan Clayton in Brett Dean's Hamlet

Some of the departures rob us of crucial aspects in the original drama: Hamlet’s father’s ghost sings at the heart-in-mouth moment where the son loses his mother’s belief in his revelation, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern – countertenors Rupert Enticknap and Christopher Lowrey, brilliant – never leave with Hamlet for England, but instead live on to parrot Osric before and during the fatal fencing match. If you’re going to outline all the main events, the sombre break in time outlined by the Prince’s absence seems to me essential.

No point, though, in lamenting what’s not there. What is could have been the more vivid if Dean’s setting of the text were more speech-melodic. Despite Clayton’s superb articulation, much of the human music in the soliloquies is lost; for all the whistling strangeness that accompanies the Yorick monologue, its deeper pathos – still reverberating with me from Andrew Scott’s astounding delivery in the recent Almeida production – is lacking. What comes across as strongest in the vocal writing is Claudius’s attempt to pray for his sins, mesmerisingly delivered by Rod Gilfry (though it was surely a mistake to omit his final “My words fly up, my thoughts remain below,” the ironic twist to Hamlet’s scruples in not killing his father’s usurper in his orisons). The ensuing scene with Gertrude might have been musically stronger, too, but Sarah Connolly’s magnificent presence and urgency make it work almost as well as in the play.

Players scene from Brett Dean's Hamlet

The real soul is in the orchestra, even if its busy-ness doesn’t always seem closely related to action or thoughts. The pair of clarinets we first hear writhing in a twitchy court scene are phantasmagorical throughout; though the tuba and bass lines for the Ghost are overdone, they serve an impressive purpose. The introduction of an accordion, the wielder of which (the terrific James Crabb) comes onstage with the players (The Murder of Gonzago pictured above, with Sarah Connolly's Gertrude and Rod Gilfry's Claudius looking on), adds a crucial variety to the textures; the auditorium ensembles above left and right make this a work you have to experience in the theatre, especially in the antiphonal side drum rattles. The eight choral voices in the pit add an extra supernatural dimension, too.

There are new sonorities after the interval, chiefly in Ophelia’s mad scene – which you may see as gripping music theatre, or Barbara Hannigan doing her usual however superbly (pictured below in an early scene with David Butt Philip's Laertes) – and the encounter with the gravedigger. The indomitable John Tomlinson trebles up as this skull-tosser, Player 1 and Ghost, as in some productions of the play. He makes the most of settings which could be sharper; Jacques Imbrailo as Horatio and Butt Philip’s Laertes have fewer chances, though their presence is undeniable, and it will be fascinating to see what the other young tenor makes of Hamlet on the tour.

David Butt Phillip and Barbara Hannigan in Brett Dean's Hamlet

Armfield, a director of whom we haven’t seen enough in the UK recently, knows exactly how to operate the drama and move the characters around. He does so without mannerism and making full use of Ralph Myers’ malleable set – contrasting open windows with closed shutters, handsome rooms and backstage scenes, so evocatively lit by Jon Clark, and handsomely filled with Alice Babidge’s stylish costumes. The set pieces all work, The Murder of Gonzago in cahoots with the music’s brilliant jolts and pauses, the fencing finale in spite of the fact that here the score doesn’t really build the tension keenly enough.

Whether the whole moves you or not – I remained on the outside, though always fascinated – the total work of art cries out to be seen and heard. That’s especially due to the return of Jurowski, the house’s inspirational music director from 2001 to 2013, whose typically meticulous work not just with his magnificent London Philharmonic but also with the singers – he spent a whole day before the premiere making sure the covers were in a state of readiness to go on if necessary – and whose presence at every stage of the production can’t be praised too highly. Every composer needs a conductor like this to realise the ideal.

The real soul is in the orchestra, even if its busy-ness doesn’t always seem closely related to action or thoughts


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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It cries out to be seen and heard ... More than once. The listener would do well to acknowledge that it may be their lack of comprehension that keeps them 'on the outside' on their first encounter. I saw 2 dress rehearsals and can confirm that the music does all conform to action and thought and this, of course, is the sense of a work of art that one experiences. Rather than going in expecting ones best experiences of each scene in the play to be equalled or surpassed, better to marvel at how the story reveals the unique musical language of the composer. Then surely a mention of the constant humour of the counter tenors R&G? Such high art beauty coupled with frivolous humour is extremely rare and difficult to execute. I can't imagine an English composer risking it to this degree, fearing the low brow spectre of G&S. Like any work of art, for best results, attend with an open mind and heart.

A different perspective, obviously. And most audience members only get a chance to see an opera once - if they're gripped they will want to return (I think I could face seeing this again on the tour).

It might be worth clarifying a point about comparison with the play - I think I implied that if the opera made more of an impact as a thing apart from the Shakespeare play, comparisons would be less intense. Another spectator made the good point that if this weren't the gripping subject of Hamlet, would we approve the music as much? Still, it did at least bear the said comparison.

It seems the other spectator is expressing half of my thought, that the well known story reveals the music, albeit with a negative spin. It's very complex music, nobody can deny but it has many down to earth elements too which aid 'legibility'. In the first place, the humour as ran with by R&G. I look forward to your feelings on second viewing!

The other imponderable. of course, is how a new opera works on the imagination in the long term. Though I think I might still find shortcomings in the vocal writing, I'm sure this will stay in my mind and maybe evolve there when other more immediately emotional experiences have disappeared. Having to jump to a verdict first thing the morning after is not always ideal.

I do find it difficult to imagine that making more impact as a thing wouldn't produce further objections for deviation and omission but I suppose you're saying it wouldn't. I stand by the thought that the ubiquity of the story reveals the palette of an extraordinary composer. A positive spin on your friend's thought. Once appreciated, the story is told by music beyond the text and staging which are constructed to frame it whilst deftly avoiding the many possible cliches. That should be enough for a story we trusted as this one to do its thing.

I did wonder where this production was going at the end of the long first act. It was no fault of Alan Clyton's that Hamlet seemed a little two dimensional and I missed the interior of the character conveyed by the soliloquies in the play. Any doubts I had were washed away by the superb second act. I have never been drawn in to Opehelia's tragedy as I was in this presentation; the decision to focus on the letters really helped this and Baraba Hannigan did wonders in her acting and singing as did Sarah Connolly. Glyndebourne deserve huge credit for backing this.

This is absolute rubbish. They might just as well have played the play straight using it as background music. All the money should have been spent on Franco Faccio's recently rediscovered superb opera Amleto.

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