From his lowest note to the top of his compass

Brett Dean
Glyndebourne Festival

Reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement, June 23

Why wait? As with many of the questions often asked of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, not least by the character of himself, to ask why Hamlet delays revenging his father is like asking why Oedipus stabs out his eyes, or why Macbeth can’t stop at one murder, or why water freezes at zero degrees. It is in their nature. Only Hamlet’s bewildered nature is the impetuous Oedipus’ opposite: the latter’s impatience with words, putting them all too hastily into action, contrasts with the former’s impatience with action and reaction, his need to draw reality’s dull mechanics into gleeful word and thought. Hamlet’s relationship with the players expresses this status, as someone whose sphere of doing lies apart, outside the realm in which the play’s other characters interact. His father knew it, as did Claudius and Gertrude, which is why – another of those questions that seems always to present itself – the succession of the Danish throne would never have been his, because it could never have been his. Like a dark cipher whose life is hammered into being by the poetic thrust of Shakespeare’s verse, Hamlet’s throne was always destined to be the words with which he seems to give the play its life.

Hamlet has, in this respect, a somewhat unique status, even among Shakespeare’s plays, which makes it especially dangerous territory for composers who try to capture it for the operatic stage. Anything that shifts the focus away from the words unmakes the play. At the same time, because the play refuses to exist in any definitive written form, any putative composer and librettist has an unusual licence to make of the action what they will. Moreover, the play cries out for music, both in its explicit concern with the theatricality of tragedy, and also because a central character, Ophelia, goes out with a song. The first quarto even goes so far as to specify that she enter, her hair down, “playing on a lute . . . singing”. Earlier, Ophelia characterizes Hamlet’s madness in musical terms, his “most sovereign reason / Like sweet bells jangled, out of tune and harsh”.

It would be going too far to say that Brett Dean, in this new opera, commissioned by Glyndebourne, greets and meets all these challenges. Certainly he and his librettist, Matthew Jocelyn, have taken liberties with text, not only with the words and scenes that must inevitably be cut (by something approaching 80 per cent) and the scenes that must inevitably be re-restructured, but also by adding scenes Shakespeare evidently thought better than to include. Thus we begin with the old king’s funeral and Claudius and Gertrude’s wedding party, with the ghost’s apparition coming third. These first scenes are cleverly rolled into one in the director Neil Armfield and the designer Ralph Myers’s near-perfect set, and the ghost, like Banquo in reverse, seems to have been present all along. The new scenes, populated by lines from later in the play, suit well the opera’s accelerated episodic structure, and create a fascinating intertextual field in which Jocelyn’s libretto, mostly verbatim selections and contractions of the original, resonate in the listener’s memory with its half-remembered spoken equivalent. In this respect, it is as much like seeing Hamlet as seeing any other Hamlet.

Dean’s chief challenge, of course, is to provide music that matches Shakespeare’s words without getting in their way. By this I mean that the music must in some sense mimic the words’ double purpose of creating and delaying the action at the same time, while also letting the words take a kind of unquestioned primacy. The situation is most easily expressed as a quandary – a narrow path between the Scylla of film music and Charybdis of symphonic over-determination – but in fact the experience is almost entirely positive. Dean’s score operates on a spectrum between occasional pure effect – with the aid of an electronic track and an extended percussion system – and occasional pure music, so that the orchestral sounds surround and penetrate the action. This is balanced in the vocal lines, which range from spoken verse to occasional lyrically determined moments (as in Hamlet’s abbreviated “There’s a divinity” from the final scene), with much of the matter somewhere in between.

The music’s main function, in fact, is to provide a corollary of the chief emotional register of the play, which is the uncanny: a state of bewilderment both as the minimum condition for poetry, and as a hair’s breadth from horror. Dean works this strand brilliantly, using little twisting and subverting motifs to nag and undermine the scene, some generating ostinato patterns that worm their way through the texture like premonitions of madness. The electronics feed well into this, as do the percussive ticks and creaks, which come from high up in the auditorium and thus appear as sounds the characters themselves can hear and react to.

And react they do, for as is often the case with new operas, the mass of uncertainties and problems that crowd the preparation, often resolved only at the last minute, here seem to have left the singer-actors tingling with the music and drama’s potentialities and minutely attuned to its hyper-intense atmosphere. Allan Clayton’s performance in the title role draws on his beautifully coloured English tenor (every inch the “honey of his music vows”) to create a character who comes alive at each moment, as well as at each moment’s falling apart. In the final scene, though the trip to England is cut, he succeeds in bringing out the damaged serenity that accompanies Hamlet’s awareness, in the play’s fifth act, that the wheel of events now turns apace with the wheel of his thoughts, and he strides purposefully into the world of fatal action. Indeed the duel, with David Butt Philip’s Laertes, is so exquisitely managed that Hamlet’s foil really does seem to dance. There are excellent performances from Sarah Connolly’s Gertrude, Jacques Imbrailo’s Horatio (a short but sympathetic role and amusingly made to resemble Withnail’s I, narrator as survivor), Rod Gilfry’s Claudius, Rupert Enticknap and Christopher Lowrey’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (brilliantly cast as chirruping counter-tenors who die feebly defending Claudius); and John Tomlinson, as ghost, gravedigger and player-king, provides as so often the voice in which one hears the entire auditorium resonate. Vladimir Jurowski, returning to Glyndebourne for the first time since retiring as music director in 2013, conducts with uncanny precision, as if he knew how the score would go before it was even written.

The uncanny often originates in the unseemly, and it is Ophelia’s unseemliness which provides the conduit between Hamlet and the court, just as it is her death which brings him, at last, into the sphere of tragic action. For in the same way that Hamlet’s death serves the character’s own purpose, so too do the deaths of Laertes, Claudius, Gertrude, Polonius, and even Rosencrantz and Guildenstern figure as ciphers restoring balance to the ledger of credit and debt. Only Ophelia needs to die, in the sense in which her unseemly death knocks both Hamlet and Claudius’s worlds off their own orbits, precisely because she should never have died.

This crucial function in the play is brought to quite staggering presence in the opera by Barbara Hannigan’s performance, where Ophelia’s courtly unseemliness is drawn in her increasingly unwieldy vocal line, and also in the disjointed movement through which Hannigan’s training as a dancer allows her to communicate the character’s dissolution as a body interrupted. Two brief duets with Gertrude – one before she dies, her head lolling in the Queen’s lap, the second just after, with Hannigan’s disembodied voice coming from high up at the back of the auditorium – crown a performance which leaves the image of Ophelia’s voice and death ringing out during Hamlet’s rest that is silence.

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