Hamlet, Glyndebourne, GFO, June 2017

Wow! As a friend remarked at the interval, during this hugely theatrical performance, “we were on the edge of our seats”. How did Australian composer Brett Dean and his librettist Matthew Jocelyn do it?

Ophelia and Hamlet, all images GFO/ Richard Hubert Smith

Certainly Neil Armfield’s excellent direction, Jon Clark’s wonderful lighting, and the large set designs by Ralph Myers, which the performers themselves manoeuvred to create most of the scene changes, helped the theatricality. As stage drama under incisive musical direction by Vladimir Jurowski conducting the London Philharmonic and the excellent Glyndebourne Chorus, this captured both the tragedy and the humour. Having Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern as counter-tenors (Rupert Enticknap and Christopher Lowrey) was an inspiration; in smart grey suits and slicked-down hair these slim versions of Tweedledum and Tweedledee added their bright stupidity to the unfolding tragedy.

Polonius and daughter Ophelia

This started with a deep rumble in the darkened auditorium before the curtain slowly rose, as light gradually emerged from the orchestra, and the stage showed a royal dinner party where all is not as it seems. The delectably pretty Ophelia of Barbara Hannigan is caught between the power exerted by Hamlet and her brother Laertes, and it is clear from the start that this cannot end well. Her performance was outstanding, her striking musicality in the mad scene worthy of the finest ballet dancer, walking on toes as if still on heels emphasising a complete breakdown of decorum, reflecting something rotten in the State of Denmark.

Ghost, Hamlet, Gertrude

As Hamlet himself, Allan Clayton gave the performance of his career, disturbed, irascible, always in danger of misfiring and missing the main target, despite warnings by his father’s ghost. This role, played with great gravitas by John Tomlinson, who was also an authoritative player and witty grave digger, provided luxury casting that included Sarah Connolly, powerful, yet ultimately discombobulated as his mother Gertrude, and Kim Begley as a ‘foolish, prating’ Polonius, whose mindless authority helps unbalance his daughter Ophelia. Add to that Rod Gilfry as a confident Claudius, David Butt Philip as an embittered, yet ultimately disillusioned Laertes, and Jacques Imbrailo as a sincerely sympathetic Horatio, and you have a cast of distinction that brought this new Hamlet to life.

Horatio, Gravedigger, Hamlet

This is not the first time the play appears as an opera. Last year I reported on the 1865 composition Amleto by Franco Faccio to a text by Arrigo Boito — who provided Verdi with his libretti for Otello and Falstaff — staged at Bregenz and broadcast by Radio 3 on June 8th this year. The text is key. Boito hewed to Shakespeare, as did librettist Matthew Jocelyn and dramaturg Cori Ellison, providing Brett Dean with the framework for detailed musical expression such as the interaction between Hamlet and his mother, and a soundscape that started with a rumble and ended powerfully as the stage suddenly went pitch dark. A Glyndebourne triumph.

Performances continue on various dates until July 6, when there will be a live cinema broadcast — for details click here.

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