Despite fine musical performances, Brett Dean’s Hamlet from the Met fails to appeal  

United StatesUnited States Brett Dean, Hamlet: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera, New York / Nicholas Carter (conductor), Broadcast Live in HD from the Metropolitan Opera, New York, to the Dundonald Omniplex, Belfast, 4.6.2022. (RB)

(Back l-r) Dame Sarah Connolly (Gertrude); Rod Gilfry (Claudius), William Burden (Polonius) and Brenda Rae (Ophelia) © Karen Almond / Met Opera

Production ­­- Neil Armfield
Set designer – Ralph Myers
Costume designer – Alice Babidge
Lighting designer – Jon Clark
Movement designer – Denni Sayers

Live in HD Host – Christine Goerke

Cast included:
Hamlet – Allan Clayton
Ophelia – Brenda Rae
Gertrude – Dame Sarah Connolly
Claudius – Rod Gilfry
Laertes – David Butt Phillip
Ghost/Gravedigger – John Relyea
Polonius – William Burden
Horatio – Jacques Imbrailo
Rosencrantz – Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen
Guildenstern – Christopher Lowrey

Brett Dean’s Hamlet was premiered at Glyndebourne in 2017 with Allan Clayton in the title role. It is one of a number of contemporary operas being staged at the Metropolitan Opera this season and next (forthcoming operas include Kevin Puts’s The Hours and Terence Blanchard’s Champion).

Matthew Jocelyn had the daunting task of excising and re-ordering material from Shakespeare’s original play in order to create the libretto for the opera. Much of the poetry from the original play has been removed and the material has been re-ordered including the famous ‘To be or not to be’ speech. It was clearly not practical or sensible to retain Shakespeare’s original text for operatic purposes given the length of it. However, the material which Jocelyn has come up with lacks dramatic coherence and many of the characters lack the depth and humanity which Shakespeare conveyed in the original text. I suspect that people not familiar with the original play may find the first act of the opera difficult to follow. I found the second act better than the first with its opening mad scene and final duel scene but the restructuring of the play was, on the whole, very unsatisfactory.

Brett Dean’s score uses several unusual percussion effects including temple bells, junk metal and crunched up plastic bottles. He has also deployed a small choir in the orchestral pit and groups of musicians throughout the auditorium. At various points in the opera, the music appeared to reflect the internalised mental state of key characters. There was some interesting textural layering in the piece but for the most part I found it difficult to engage with the music and did not find it memorable.

Ralph Myers’s set consisted of a large ballroom in an imposing manor house. The assembled cast were all wearing smart dinner jackets and evening gowns, aside from Hamlet and Horatio who were both wearing cheap casual gear. There were some fluid and seamless set changes in Neil Armfield’s production including a graveyard which descended from the ceiling in the second act. For the most part the production worked well although, thinking of Shakespeare’s original cast of characters and the events of the play, I would have welcomed greater variety in the set designs and costumes.

Justin Austin (Marcellus), Allan Clayton (Hamlet) and Jacques Imbrailo (Horatio)  © Karen Almond / Met Opera

Allan Clayton portrayed Hamlet as disgruntled and disaffected and leapt around the stage at various points pulling funny faces and making unusual gestures as he tried the convince the assembled court he was not in his right mind. It was a rather two-dimensional portrayal of the character, although given the material in this opera there was not much for Clayton to work with in order to give us a more rounded portrait. Clayton sang extremely well and he adopted a range of vocal timbres, ranging from lyrical and reflective to biting and sarcastic. Brenda Rae gave a convincing portrayal of the doomed Ophelia and was particularly impressive in the mad scene which opened Act II. She appeared wearing underwear and her hair and body were covered with mud. She sang the elaborate coloratura lines with power and authority.

The rest of the cast all acquitted themselves well. I was particularly impressed with John Relyea’s Ghost and David Butt Phillip’s Laertes. Relyea’s bare-chested Ghost was unsettling as his voice boomed out from the bottom of the vocal register. Butt Philip sang with great beauty of tone and brought fire to the more vengeful scenes. Sarah Connolly was also impressive in the role of Gertrude and sang with great lyricism while Rod Gilfry did a good job bringing the scheming Claudius to life. Aryeh Cohen’s Rosencrantz and Christopher Lowrey’s Guildenstern lightened the brooding atmosphere with their countertenor duets and their portrayal of the buttoned-up courtiers.

Nicholas Carter was successful in keeping the assembled forces together, particularly given that they were scattered across the auditorium. The unusual orchestral and vocal effects were executed well although I did not find them entirely convincing. The orchestra did well, suggesting the mental states of the main characters blending seamlessly with the singers in doing so.

Overall, the assembled vocal and orchestral forces gave fine performances but I am afraid this opera is not for me and though I would not recommend it, you may get an opportunity to make up your own mind.

Robert Beattie

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