Culture

Theatre

‘Hamlet’ reinvigorated as opera

By Miriam Cosic
Brett Dean and Neil Armfield reimagine the Shakespearean tragedy at the Adelaide Festival

Dozens of operatic Hamlets have been attempted in the last 200 years and none have remained in memory, let alone in repertoire.

That several European and North American companies have already put up their hands up for Brett Dean’s Hamlet, first performed at Glyndebourne last year, suggests a longer life for this one, though time alone will tell how long.

Despite the apparent impossibility of the undertaking – the play is four hours long, and why even attempt to set Shakespeare’s melodic poetry to actual music? – a bunch of Aussies began to work on the project in 2013. They all had impressive CVs. The composer, Brett Dean, who makes music that is sharp, abstract and yet lyrical, already has one opera under his belt, Bliss, which premiered at the Sydney Opera House in 2010. The director, Neil Armfield, still looks back on his 1995 version of Hamlet, the play, starring Richard Roxburgh and Cate Blanchett, as one of his best pieces of work.

When Dean and Armfield found their librettist, Canadian Matthew Jocelyn (the only non-Australian on the team), their translation of Hamlet began to come together. Jocelyn decided to pare down the play – he lost Fortinbras and the drama surrounding him, for example – and to rely only on Shakespeare’s words. The result is an evanescent, aphoristic book, centred on an earthy yet mercurial Hamlet, which essentially cuts to the chase. In places, words and phrases are repeated almost like snatches of incantation in place of the declamations of Shakespeare; at one point, Jocelyn runs together several of the play’s most famous lines as if coaching our cultural memory to stay on track.

Dean’s music is superb. It can be large and driven – using all the resources of an expanded Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, the State Opera Chorus and Sydney’s Song Company – or chamber-quartet intimate, providing the light and shade that drama and comedy give Shakespeare’s original. The conductor at Glyndebourne, Vladimir Jurowski, said trying to describe it was like “trying to dance the architecture, or paint the choreography”. Impressively, he added of working with the score, that “after a while hearing the Shakespearean lines with this music, you stop distinguishing between them”.

The first and longer part of the two-act opera is much more tentative and introspective than the action-heavy second part. But from the first electronic rumblings as the lights go down, the music grips. And throughout all the initial character setting, Hamlet’s ongoing indecisiveness about honour, love and life itself, the music creates an underlying tension that is both riveting and suspenseful. And suspense is not easy to evoke in a story so well known.

Dean’s music also perfectly reflects the states of mind of the protagonists, sometimes mirroring anger, sometimes regret, often confusion and despair. Nicholas Carter, chief conductor of the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, marshals his troops with precision, singing the words as he goes. The regular eruptions of electronic, acoustic and percussive elements from all over the theatre add to the surround-sound feel, as well as the disturbed psychology and the ghostly undertow.

Allan Clayton, who also sang Hamlet at Glyndebourne, dominates throughout and, indeed, is on stage for most of it. There have been so many interpretations of Hamlet, but Clayton’s is one of the most sympathetic I have seen: a defiantly dressed-down young man among the finery of the court, vacillating but intelligent, quick thinking and witty, felled in the moment by the existential crisis brought on by grief and an overpowering sense of injustice. He is both wise and powerless here, and Clayton’s richly hued tenor is matched by resourceful and multi-faceted acting uncommon on the opera stage.

The cast is well blended vocally with no weak links. Baritone Rod Gilfry’s Claudius and tenor Kim Begley’s Polonius are nuanced roles in Armfield’s hands: Claudius, for example, is handsome and downright nice, even helpful, when he isn’t plotting murder. Baritone Douglas McNicol’s Horatio is sympathetic, as you’d want, though his influence over Hamlet is toned down. The local additions match the old Glyndebourne hands. Cheryl Barker’s Gertrude is beautifully sung and simply acted, a warm-enough-hearted but confused woman overtaken by her own actions. And Jud Arthur is a marvellous mix of world-weary and sympathetic, and a nice change of pace, as the gravedigger.

Young Australian Lorina Gore as Ophelia evoked mixed reactions on the night. Some thought her interpretation failed to meld with the rest of the characterisations. But failing to belong is exactly Ophelia’s problem, and her nervy opening scenes give a foretaste of the ghastly mad scene in the second part when, dressed only in her underwear and a muddied frockcoat, with mud smeared all over her limbs, she finally lets fly with her pent-up frustrations. The only jarring note for me is the slapstick Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, sung nicely enough by countertenors Rupert Enticknap and Christopher Lowrey, but played with the high camp inevitably favoured when comedy is required on the Australian opera stage.

Armfield’s direction has all the clarity and dramatic pacing for which he is famous. His Janáček productions in Sydney in the early 2000s stick in the mind, but, if anything, this surmounts them, given the courage with which he had to reconstruct a jewel in the crown of the Western canon. With Dean and Jocelyn, he has unravelled the most famous of Shakespeare’s plays and put it together again to make it both fresh and surprising, without attempting to épater la bourgeoisie by pretending it is “only” a text to be mangled on whim.

Designer Ralph Myers’ set is a beautifully cool and spacious Scandinavian space, the empty stage floor allowing Hamlet’s energy and the crowd scenes unimpeded flow. Costume designer Alice Babidge gives us a contemporary counterpoint to Myers’ 18th century: her courtly dress is not only beautiful but elegantly fashionable, unlike the nanna versions the opera stage so often gives us. Outside the court, when musings and plottings are afoot, Myers reverses the panels to give us shelves and struts and wiring, and all the real-life paraphernalia that goes on behind the most elegant decor.

Foyer gossip told me that Sir Simon Rattle gave Dean, a protégé from his time at the Berlin Philharmonic, some advice for writing for Glyndebourne. Because the patrons will have been knocking back fine wines in the hour-and-a-half interval given for the time-honoured Glyndebourne picnic, it was important to start the second act with a bang, to keep it short, and to keep them awake till the end.

And so it is. The conspiracy unfolding, Ophelia’s mad scene, the denouement: the second act is all action. With all the blood and body count of an American TV cop show, the finely choreographed duel between Hamlet and Laertes brings out Dean’s capacity for simpler musical narration. At the very end, at Hamlet’s death, poisoned by Laertes’ sword, Clayton’s rendering of the Prince of Denmark returns us to the young man’s angst and the unnerving inevitability of theatrical tragedy.

Miriam Cosic attended Hamlet as a guest of the Adelaide Festival.

Miriam Cosic

Miriam Cosic is a Sydney-based journalist and author.

Photograph by Tony Lewis

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