Hamlet might be the most well-loved and influential play in the English language. Its tale of loss and revenge, of madness and fathers, hinges on that fateful question, to be or not to be. Daringly, this new take on the play begins with fragments of that famous soliloquy: ‘Not..to be..’, Hamlet intones, sounding deeply forlorn. This first sentence, torn from the middle of the play, lands strangely on the ears, setting the tone for Brett Dean’s stunning new opera – this production is about to breathe dark life into an age-old story.
(photos by Richard Hubert Smith)
What follows is an exhilarating treatment of a familiar tale. The narrative remains largely unchanged, but librettist Matthew Jocelyn is not afraid to chop and change things, make use of versions of famous speeches not usually performed and reassign crucial bits of dialogue. In any case, a Hamlet opera that stuck completely to the book would be at least longwinded, if not unfeasibly long, so the experimental treatment of the text is called for, and successful on top of that. We encounter Hamlet, a prince still mourning his father’s death while his mother has since taken his father’s brother as her new husband and king, as intrinsically youthful, at times sardonic, at times depressed. The treatment of the central character seems to change with each iteration of Hamlet, making it one of the most interesting points to measure a production by.
The cast give strong performances overall, but some singers and their roles prove particularly memorable. David Butt Philip in the title role is intensely committed, skilfully inhabiting the disjointedness of the singing and narrative. His Hamlet is rough, almost animalistic, a moody teenager with a savage edge. Then there is his sometime love, Ophelia. Though Barbara Hannigan sang the role during Glyndebourne Festival Opera’s summer production of Hamlet, the role of Ophelia seems to be written for Jennifer France with her sparkling soprano voice and obvious gift for acting. She lends a childlike quality to her earlier scenes and a gripping madness to her later deterioration, making the most of her every moment on stage. Lastly, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, played by James Hall and Rupert Enticknap as a countertenor duo, are perfect – their glib Tweedledum and Tweedledee-ness is almost sinister.
In Hamlet, Australian composer Brett Dean makes use of an extraordinary amount of unusual musical devices. The chorus, directed by Glyndebourne’s new chorus master Nicholas Jenkins, frame the action by moving about from onstage to offstage, appearing suddenly, singing at full volume, in different parts of the auditorium. A few instrumentalists that double as foley artists – banging rocks together, rustling plastic bags, and more – are stationed at the top of the auditorium behind each balcony. As I was up in the cheap seats at the side of the stage, I was as close as one could possibly be to the manipulators of these bizarre sound effects. The ingenious use of a semi-chorus positioned in the pit for the whole of the show adds an extra layer of stereophonic immersiveness. It was refreshing to feel so involved in a production, as even as an opera-lover and student, I find it hard to appreciate some works of contemporary opera, especially when an utter abandonment of melodic line makes them hard to swallow. However, Hamlet gets it just right – there is nothing boring or old-fashioned about it, but there are plenty of congruous musical components, and though the music is overwhelming, it is never uncomfortable to listen to.
Hamlet not only sounds but looks exciting – the set by Ralph Myers and the costumes by Alice Babidge have an air of subdued 19th century Nordic glamour which greatly suits the production. Great off-white sash windows and doors that frame the dining room in which the opera begins gradually fracture apart as things go more and more awry in the story and the chorus rush about in their smart dinner jackets and gowns of pale, pearly silks. The scene in which a play is staged in the royal household is especially wonderfully done as the versatile stage flats turn to become scaffolding-like structures hung with bright costumes and spotlights.
Though it is unlikely I will remember the music for long, Hamlet certainly provided me with a memorable first experience of Glyndebourne and its beautiful environs. The opera gets the balance of old and new just right and seems well on its way to making an impact on the continuous evolution of one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays.
Glyndebourne’s Hamlet is on tour around England until 1st December 2017. For more information and tickets, click here.