Brett Dean’s Hamlet

A new opera by Australian Brett Dean based on Shakespeare’s Hamlet premiered at Glyndebourne this summer.  A recording of it was broadcast on BBC television on 22nd October.  I’ve now had a chance to watch it in full.  I wasn’t sure what to expect as it get somewhat mixed reviews.  I was impressed.  Very impressed.  First off, Matthew Jocelyn, who wrote the libretto, and Dean know how to turn a play into an opera.  They understand that it’s not just about taking a bunch of dialogue and giving it a soundtrack.  What they do is very clever.  All the text is Shakespeare but it’s split up and moved around.  There’s repetition and sometimes words are reassigned to different characters. Characters sing parallel lines. Then, of course, there’s a chorus.  A good example is when the players appear before performing The Death of Gonzago.  They get lines taken from various of Hamlet’s soliloquies chopped up and rearranged.  It’s effective and allows the main elements of the story to be told in under three hours of opera.  The main bit that’s missing is the whole Fortinbras and the Norwegians thing but that often gets cut anyway.


The sound world is intriguing.  It’s intensely modern.  Maybe the closest thing to it that I can think of would be something like Birtwistle’s Minotaur.  It’s got the same kind of raw power.  In places it’s lyrical and in others quite ugly but there’s always a kind of pulsating energy driving things along.  It uses electronics, on stage musicians, including an accordionist, and musicians placed high up in the house as well as in the pit.  Also, different characters are given different vocal styles.  Ophelia gets a lot of fluttery music while Gertrude has long lines that go disconcertingly off pitch.  It’s as far from neo-Broadway pablum as can be.


The production is by Neil Armfield and it’s well crafted.  There’s a highly kinetic set that mostly resolves as a high class salon or ball room but it disintegrates in odd ways often making the back stage areas visible.  It’s supplemented by a platform in Act 2 that allows for a two level set for the graveyard scenes.  There’s lots of movement of both principals and chorus and many scenes are extremely effective.  The treatment of Ophelia is interesting.  In Act 1 she’s quite foofy in a rather elaborate dress and she’s clearly very young.  She gets rather fluttery, girly musicIt’s extraordinary how young the 46 year old Barbara Hannigan makes her appear.  Then in the Act 2 mad scene she completely disintegrates musically and physically.  Hannigan, dressed in grubby underwear and a military overcoat, throws herself around physically and musically in rather extraordinary ways.  One wonders, in fact, who else could do it.


It’s one of many fine performances.  Allan Clayton navigates the many moods of Hamlet with great skill.  Sarah Connolly is an ambiguous and disturbed (and disturbing Gertrude).  John Tomlinson appears in multiple roles; as the ghost, the leader of the players and the gravedigger.  It’s a tour de force.  Rod Gilfry, as Claudius, is kind of a straight man to all the madness going on around him.  There’s much more too.  It’s a luxury cast and it delivers.  The chorus is well up to Glyndebourne standards and Vladimir Jurowski, in the pit with the LPO, somehow manages to give it a real sense of structural coherence.


François Roussillon directs judiciously for the cameras and is helped by a really good 720p TV recording.  I rather doubt that standard DVD would do the dense and sometimes dark stage picture justice.  Sound, as broadcast, is of course stereo and it’s excellent but I imagine that this is a piece that would benefit enormously from surround sound.  Presumably there will be a Blu-ray release with that at some point.  There are about seven minutes of interviews and so forth before the main event and they are quite insightful.


For me, this is what contemporary opera ought to be about.  It’s also, of course, what national broadcasting companies ought to be programming.  Fat chance of that in Philistine Canuckistan.


9 thoughts on “Brett Dean’s Hamlet

  1. I saw it at Glyndebourne in June and thought it was a brilliant recrafting of the Hamlet story – very dark as presaged by Hamlet’s opening words … or not to be. But there were also wonderful comic moments. A multi-layered work reflected in the inventiveness of the music. Performances were exceptional – Clayton not only sang very well, but showed terrific acting chops – capturing all of Hamlet’s shifting moods. Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern as Twiddledee and Twiddledum countertenors an inspired touch. Staging was also very dramatic… for eg. Gertrude’s long slow walk downstage telling of Ophelia’s death. So we did see different things – I was captivated … and I’d seen a the (much longer!) Almeida version of play with Andrew Scott the night before. Also brilliant btw.

  2. Meant to agree that yes this is what national broadcasting companies ought to be programming and for a while they did. But when the excellent performing arts program Opening Night was dumped to make way for ratings driven reality business show Venture the future for our “public” broadcaster was pretty clear. You would have thought that a major new opera with a libretto by a Canadian and starring an internationally acclaimed Canadian soprano might have caught their attention. But no ….

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