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DEAN: Hamlet

DVD Button Hannigan, Connolly; Clayton, Gilfry, Begley, Tomlinson, Butt Philip, Imbrailo, Enticknap, Lowrey; London Philharmonic Orchestra, Glyndebourne Chorus, Jurowski. Production: Armfield. Opus Arte OA 1254 D (DVD)/OA BD7231 D (Blu-ray), 164 mins. (opera), 21 mins. (bonus), subtitles

What a Piece of Work, Man.

Brett Dean’s Shakespeare adaptation is a modern masterpiece.

Recordings Hamlet hdl 119
Moves like Jagger: Clayton and ensemble at Glyndebourne
© Richard Hubert Smith
Recordings Hamlet Cover 119
Critics Choice Button 1015 

BRETT DEAN'S HAMLET , recorded at its 2017 Glyndebourne premiere, is fated to rank among the great new operas of the twenty-first century. In some respects, the Australian composer’s adaptation even surpasses Thomas Adès’s popular Tempest opera from 2004, which was held back by a condescending “translation” of Elizabethan blank verse into modern English. Mercifully, Dean’s librettist, Matthew Jocelyn, preserves the original text, though he’s made some substantial rearrangements. His reworking foregrounds the fatalism, with Hamlet already reciting bits of “To be, or not to be” in the prologue, as he broods on his inevitable death. Dean evokes the prince’s passive resignation with a drooping, microtonal glissando that reappears in various guises throughout the opera, slipping slowly but inevitably into the grave. His compositional language is theatrically oriented, in the spirit of Verdi’s late Shakespeare masterpieces. Each scene establishes a mood-setting ostinato that keeps the action rolling—the violent Rite of Spring woodwinds that accompany Hamlet’s declaration of revenge, for instance, or the “wah-wah” trombones that babble throughout the comic Gravedigger episode.

Dean embraces the black humor of such scenes over the typical gloominess associated with Hamlet. Fits of giggling from the piano and the stifled sniggering of rubbed sandpaper seem to mock the star-cross’d characters, whose ashen-faced makeup suggests that they’ve already “shuffled off this mortal coil.” In fact, the entire opera is something of a metatheatrical commentary on this paradigm of Western tragedy; the piece essentially swallows itself during the players’ scene, in which the actors rehearse iconic lines from the very drama they inhabit. All the while, onstage accordionist James Crabb spins out mischievous incidental music; his solo returns at key plot points to remind us that we’re watching a work of theater—that “the thing’s a play,” if you will.

Dean’s setting taps into the inherent musicality of the Bard’s dialogue; his vocal writing blends elements of Shakespearean declamation with operatic lyricism in such a way that the soloists drift seamlessly from singing to Sprechgesang to speech. As the melancholy Dane, tenor Allan Clayton excels in his eloquent, Laurence Olivier delivery, but he’s at his best when he lets loose in outbursts of raw emotion, such as his cries of anguish over Ophelia’s coffin. My one complaint is that his portrayal lacks subtly—he overdoes it with silly antics meant to convey the prince’s feigned “north-north-west” madness. Baritone Rod Gilfry avoids a moustache-twirling characterization of Claudius, and his sobbing Monteverdi trills in the king’s confession aria sound convincingly remorseful. With his imposing figure and lion’s-roar bass, John Tomlinson makes for a hulking Ghost, only to reincarnate into the clownish First Player and Gravedigger. Baritone Kim Begley’s performance as the pedantic Polonius is pure Gilbert and Sullivan—his pompous melisma on “I will be brief” recalls Pooh-bah’s never-ending toast in The Mikado

In the role of Gertrude, mezzo Sarah Connolly is woefully underutilized, and her solo number is the only uninteresting passage in the score. For the most part, Neil Armfield’s production is intelligent and understated, but his treatment of Ophelia’s mad scene feels exploitative. He costumes soprano Barbara Hannigan in a bra and panties, transforming her from a repressed “green girl” into a crazed nymphomaniac miming lewd acts—she kisses Gertrude on the mouth and proceeds to hump the queen’s leg like a chihuahua. In a drama that’s already unkind to its female characters, Armfield might have opted for a more sympathetic staging of mental illness. For her part, Hannigan attacks Dean’s frenzied coloratura with her usual knife-point precision, leaping to high Ds that resemble the uncanny shimmer of a glass harmonica. 

Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic are joined by the disembodied Glyndebourne Chorus, whose incantatory muttering from offstage awakens some haunting sonorities. —Joe Cadagin 

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