Who is Hamlet? Is he a noble, “sweet prince” whose moral scruples will not allow him to sweep to his revenge in the traditional manner of Revenge Tragedy – an intellectual, beloved of all, the “expectancy and rose of the fair state?” Or is he an annoying little prat, who blubs for his useless lazy old dad’s death for far too long, and takes even longer to conclude that he should bump off his oleaginous uncle? Brett Dean’s opera, with Matthew Jocelyn’s libretto and directed by Neil Armfield, plumps firmly for the latter, leaving any nobility or hint of the “soldier’s, scholar’s eye” to the orchestral score, in the sublime hands of Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra.
Why are Shakespeare’s plays often unsuccessful when turned into operas? Because they are masterpieces in themselves and only when they are approached by another genius such as Verdi or Britten, can they exist as eternal works. This is not to say that Dean’s Hamlet is a poor piece; far from it, since the music is often beautiful and never less than engaging, the libretto moves the narrative effectively and the essentials of the drama are mostly in place. However, it is the exceptional performances here which impress more than the overall concept.
Allan Clayton is a Glyndebourne favourite – who could forget his superb Male Chorus in the 2015 The Rape of Lucretia? – and he gave the title part his all, faithfully depicting a Hamlet in turmoil from the start, more in tune with the notion of man as a “quintessence of dust” than a being “noble in reason… infinite in faculty.” That this vision of Hamlet lacks nobility, grandeur or tragic status is simply part of how the play has been interpreted here, and if one found Clayton’s constant stooping, wheedling manner more redolent of Uriah Heep than a prince, that is down to the concept and not to its actor. His singing, like that of everyone else on stage, was a constant joy.
No one does bonkers like Barbara Hannigan, and here she was again in mad modern mode, turning what could sound like shrieks into poetry and creating an Ophelia who does not make you squirm – brilliant casting again. No one does regal hauteur with an undercurrent of insecurity like Sarah Connolly, and here she was giving us yet another icy queen with a malleable heart (she allowed the proper weight to the lines about strewing the grave and not the bridal bed) and singing with lovely, warm tone. No one does youthful sincerity better than Jacques Imbrailo, and his was an ideal Horatio who made you wish he’d been left with more lines.
Rod Gilfry was a completely credible Claudius, the scheming politician to the life, and Kim Begley was luxury casting as Polonius. David Butt Philip will take on the role of Hamlet when the production tours, and his Laertes here promised much, since it was not only finely sung but vividly characterized – you were reminded of what an overweening so-and-so Laertes is, with his pompous reaction to Hamlet’s noble offer of reconciliation. John Tomlinson was a noble ghost, exuberant Player King and sonorous Gravedigger. Rupert Enticknap and Christopher Lowrey’s characterization as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern seemed to owe something to the ENO’s vision of the ‘Sound the trumpet’ duet from The Faerie Queene – possibly a touch too camp for some tastes, although they both sang mellifluously.
Ralph Myers’ set is austerely beautiful, the court of Denmark in tasteful greys and whites, with Alice Babidge’s costumes supplying splashes of colour and texture. The lighting (Jon Clark) is eloquently stark, and Nicholas Hall’s fight direction is spot on, with that fencing bout always presenting a fiendish challenge. Needless to say the choral singing – at times coming from various parts of the hall – is very fine indeed.
Vladimir Jurowski seemed to be as intimate with the music as he is with the established repertoire, and his direction was superb from the opening bars to the closing moments; the LPO played wonderfully for him, and even if you might be a touch dubious about going to hear a 21st century work, it is worth it not only for the outstanding singing but also for the quality of the playing under Glyndebourne’s erstwhile Music Director.
Booking information can be found here: glyndebourne.com/tickets-and-whats-on/events/2017/hamlet