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.
Just been checking out the Glyndebourne 2017 season announcement. Not that I’ll be going or anything but one production did catch my eye. There’s a new Hamlet opera from Brett Dean and Matthew Jocelyn to be directed by Neil Armfield and conducted by Vladimir Jurowski which sounds promising enough but look at this cast: Allan Clayton (Hamlet), Sarah Connolly (Gertrude), Barbara Hannigan (Ophelia), Rod Gilfry (Claudius), Kim Begley (Polonius), John Tomlinson (Ghost of Old Hamlet). There had better be a DVD.
Oh yes and they’ve unearthed yet another previously (more or less) unheard of Cavalli.
The recently announced death of Jon Vickers has had me thinking a lot about connections. Vickers sang the title role in the second opera I saw live; Peter Grimes at Covent Garden in July 1975. Oddly, the first was The Rhinegold, at ENO, conducted by Reginald Goodall who also conducted the premiere performance of Peter Grimes in 1945. The summers of 1975 and 1976 were the first real chance, and the last for a while, that I had to see opera live. I worked those summer vacations in banks in central London which meant that I could use my lunchbreak to get a rush ticket for the evening performance. Living thirty miles out with a train to catch meant it wasn’t something I could do often but I did catch a couple of performances in each of those summers and, as I look back, there are so many beginnings and endings and connections.
We seem to be in some kind of post apocalyptic wasteland. Mime’s hut looks like a re-purposed storage tank but the bear and the forest are more or less realistic. It’s all very dark and there’s quite a lot of use of pyrotechnics. This is also our first look at Siegfried Jerusalem’s Siegfried and he is very good indeed. He captures the hero’s youthful vigour and arrogance extremely well. There is a strong performance too from a rather manic Graham Clark as Mime and John Tomlinson continues as a reckless and wild Wanderer.
The Kupfer/Barenboim Ring continues very strongly with the second instalment, Die Walküre. It opens in quite a straightforward, more or less realistic way. Hunding’s hall is slightly abstracted with a recognizable tree. It’s quite spare though which creates space for the strong interpersonal dynamics between Siegmund and Sieglinde. Poul Elming is a very physical, almost manic Siegmund and Nadine Secunde’s Sieglinde is almost as physical. It’s all very intense and beautifully sung. Matthias Hölle as Hunding is no slouch either.
The 1991 Bayreuth Ring cycle is one of those productions that has become a historical landmark, as much as Chereau and Boulez’ 1976 effort, or maybe even more so. For many people it is the Ring. So what is it like? The staging is very bare and much reliance is placed on effects like lasers and smoke. It also makes considerable acting and athletic demands on the singers. It is, in many ways, a very modern production for 1991.
When the Royal Opera House mounted a new production of Britten’s Peter Grimes in 1975 with Canadian heldentenor Jon Vickers in the title role it was controversial. Whatever else one could say about it Vickers’ interpretation of Grimes was very different from that of Peter Pears for whom the part was written. Britten, it was said, hated it. I saw it that summer and was pretty impressed but then seventeen year olds impress easily. I certainly never expected that the young baritone singing Ned Keene would end up as a knight and Chancellor of the university where I began my degree a few weeks later. When the production was revived in 1981 there were some significant cast changes. Norman Bailey had replaced the retired Geraint Evans as Balstrode, Philip Gelling was in for Thomas Allen as Ned Keene and one John Tomlinson had taken over as Hobson the carter. The incomparable Heather Harper remained as Ellen Orford. It’s the revival cast that was recorded and broadcast by the BBC and which is available on DVD from Kultur in the Americas and Warner Video elsewhere.