Ever wondered what it would be like to be inside Hamlet’s head? By fragmenting Shakespeare’s most complicated hero and patching him back together again using music for glue, Brett Dean has done just that, giving us a uniquely operatic perspective on the moody Dane and creating an exciting, colourful, and perfectly-paced telling of the play into the bargain. With its plethora of characters and sheer sprawl, Hamlet has proved a tricky beast to corral into musical form – Berlioz and Verdi ultimately shied away from the challenge – so Dean and his Canadian librettist Matthew Jocelyn, not to mention director Neil Armfield, deserve great credit that this new version proves emotionally powerful and entirely cohesive.

Allan Clayton as Hamlet. Photograph © Richard Hubert Smith

Hamlet, the play, can run for a gruelling four hours. Add music and you might easily double that. Coming together over five years, the breakthrough for the creative team was the realisation that there is no such thing as a definitive Hamlet. By granting themselves the license to roam across the versions – from the First Folio to the notoriously bastard First Quarto – they reduced the story to the one they wanted to advance, while taking the curse off overly familiar lines by picking and choosing texts they felt best told that tale. But the real masterstroke was allowing characters to echo, and even utter each other’s lines. Instead of causing verbal anarchy, the discipline of music binds and restructures the words into a dynamic whole, ensuring the story goes forward with a dramatic thrust that would be the envy of many a Shakespearean director.

The dramaturgy proves admirably sound. Out goes Fortinbras and the idea of nations on the brink, leaving us tightly focused on a family at war. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern – here a pair of twittering countertenors – aren’t duped into any fatal voyage to England, leaving them to fulfil some of the courtier Oswald’s functions around the climactic duel. Though we lose some of the pure leisure of Hamlet’s extended soliloquies, by giving our protagonist less time to reflect he is catapulted into actions whose consequences he cannot foresee, lending this interpretation a peculiarly modern angle picked up by Allan Clayton’s frenetic Hamlet with his bad boy attitude and hipster beard.

Musically Dean has built on his first opera – the lyrically memorable, if occasionally loose-limbed Bliss – to create a more tightly controlled musical edifice, and one with greater cut and thrust. His orchestrations titillate and engage the ear, from the acoustic placement of percussion and wind instruments up high and behind the audience – another element giving you a sense of sitting inside the drama – to the subtle boost of electronics in the pit enhancing the play’s otherworldly atmosphere. It’s not a huge orchestra, but it is a rich one with a prominent part for accordion – the marvellous James Crabb – each instrument playing its part, as does the chorus, used both onstage and (to thrilling effect) off. Glacial strings punctuate the deconstructed To be, or not to be in a way reminiscent of Britten’s Nocturne, while the brief ensembles – like the vocal quintet expounding on Ophelia as “mad as the sea, alas” are exquisitely put together.

Front: John Tomlinson. Back row: Sarah Connolly, Rod Gilfry, Allan Clayton, Kim Begley and Barbara Hannigan. Photograph © Richard Hubert Smith

Armfield is an old hand at Hamlet. His 1994 production with Richard Roxburgh and Cate Blanchett is cited by many an Aussie actor as a seminal theatrical experience, and that very human staging still forms the basis of his views on the play today. Dean and Jocelyn’s focus on interior dialogues and the juxtaposition of thought and action plays right into Armfield’s understanding of the text and the result is a Glyndebourne production of great clarity and considerable insight. The gimmick-free teasing out of the mental fragility yoking Hamlet with his soulmate Ophelia is painfully apparent from the sad way they cling together from the opening wedding onwards. The way the Danish court weighs down and crushes them drives this secular Passion play to its inevitable conclusion without us ever becoming aware of the mechanics behind the purring engine – and that is no mean feat. Ditto the brilliantly staged final scene with its carefully crafted fight and inevitable pile up of bodies.

Ralph Myers’ towering ivory doors create vast, empty playing spaces, throwing the focus onto the still small voices of humanity inhabiting them. Beautifully lit by Jon Clark, they spin apart like so many pieces of a broken mind to reform or recede as required. Characters feel trapped, shut in, while light plays on and off faces to great effect and a palpable sense of the outside world is always present. The descent of the freshly dug grave from the flies is a wonderfully conceived moment, subverting ideas of heaven and hell. Alice Babidge’s costumes are timeless in the best sense of the word, creating archetypal kings and queens, but also Jacobean players and a shabby-coated Everyman Hamlet.

For this premiere, Glyndebourne has turned out a world-class, luxury cast. Clayton offers a powerfully sung, deeply troubled Hamlet, his easy tenor coping impressively with whatever Dean throws at him. He’s great with the text, both in terms of projection and the sense of inner meaning. His hand-twitching ‘madness’ exposes an isolated young man’s coping mechanisms, while the interference of Ophelia or his old school friends are an unwelcome distraction to be swatted away. It’s a performance of considerable inner power, driven along by Dean’s hectic musical pace, but those truncated monologues have a habit of leaving you wanting more opportunity for him to play on our emotions.

No qualms at all about Barbara Hannigan, one of the most touchingly delicate, physically accomplished Ophelias I’ve seen on any stage. Browbeaten by her brother, and put down by her father, she’s ready to break from the start, her inevitable descent conveyed through voice and body language. Her warm, nimble soprano darts high and low with impeccable diction and attention to words and their meanings. Her mad scene, clad in little more than a mud-spattered tailcoat, was a master class in maintaining line while physicalizing a shattered psyche.

Vocally, Rod Gilfry and Sarah Connolly compel as an authoritative Claudius and a Gertrude whose heart goes out yet is frequently afraid to act. Gilfry’s potent baritone rides the largest orchestral textures and his ‘vengeance duet’ with David Butt Philip’s penetrating, blustering Laertes is a rare moment where the monarch’s mask slips to reveal the monster within. Connolly plays Gertrude as the opera’s other victim, a woman who knows she is a political pawn and is afraid to ask for the truth, lest it be what she suspects. Her There is a willow is one of the score’s lyrical highlights, the dying Ophelia’s offstage Goodnight ladies becoming a poignant descant.

Jacques Imbrailo, John Tomlinson and Allan Clayton. Photograph © Richard Hubert Smith

Kim Begley makes Polonius both pompous pedant and dangerous meddler, his razor sharp tenor untouched by time. Likewise the cast’s other veteran, John Tomlinson, here tripling up as the Ghost of Old Hamlet, The Player and The Gravedigger. Stripped to the waist and coated in white clay, his instantly recognisable, sepulchral tones make the electrifying ghost scene another highlight of the score, while his turn as the saturnine gravedigger is wonderfully subtle. More luxury casting sees Jacques Imbrailo as a sensitive, finely focussed Horatio, while Rupert Enticknap and Christopher Lowrey have great fun as the fluttering Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Dean wittily writing like a latter-day Purcell with a habit of landing on discordant semitones. Scottish accordionist James Crabb makes his mark as an onstage one-man band for the text-free play-within-a-play.

Former music director Vladimir Jurowski, who has been involved in the project from day one, makes a welcome return to Glyndebourne, mustering his physically diffused forces with a calm authority, the London Philharmonic on top form throughout. Dean’s Hamlet is a rare thing, an authentic musical interpretation of a play that both enhances Shakespeare and is very much its own master. An opera for today, it deserves to enter the repertoire and will surely deliver further rewards on a second or third hearing. Here’s hoping it comes to Australia in the near future.

Hamlet is at the Glyndebourne Festival until July 6 before touring the UK later in the year. The July 6 performance will be live broadcast.

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