It is the fate of nearly all new operas to disappear quickly after an initial run of performances, so it was with much anticipation that Australian audiences had the opportunity to see Brett Dean’s Hamlet, triumphantly premièred at Glyndebourne in June 2017 (I reviewed the opening night for Australian Book Review). The centrepiece of the 2018 Adelaide Festival, the opera has created a real buzz around town, and there was a large contingent from the east coast. Critical reaction to the opera last year was almost uniformly positive – highly unusual for a contemporary opera – so expectations for the three Adelaide performances were high. Did it deliver?
The verdict – resoundingly, yes. Dean tailored the work for the particular acoustic qualities of the Glyndebourne theatre, with its high, atrium-like structure. Parts of the orchestra and chorus were dispersed throughout the auditorium, creating a rich and often eerily strange sound world, with much use of non-traditional musical means. But there was enough flexibility in the score for it to transfer to very different venues for a tour of the United Kingdom. The Adelaide Festival Theatre has a more conventional design, but imaginative use was made of this more limited potential. It is the same production, and Ralph Myers’ elegant and functional stage designs transferred most effectively to the new space.
What was of particular interest was how the cast changes would impact on the Adelaide performances. The focal point of the opera remains Allan Clayton’s multi-faceted performance of the title role. Not the lean and pale figure fitting the popular conception of the role, Clayton’s bear-like, shambling, yet nimble physical presence underpins a highly nuanced and subtle vocal performance. This is a marathon of a role, requiring of the singer a vocal range from hushed, lyrical asides, through to Sprechgesang and anguished cries and wordless vocalisations, exploring the widest possible extremities and capacities of the tenor voice. Clayton has it all, and, if anything, creates a more rounded character than in his earlier assumption of the role. He also provides an object lesson in operatic diction.
Rodney Gilfrey enjoys a proud record of creating characters in contemporary operas, and his Claudius is a beautifully sung and rich characterisation. His guilt-ridden prayer remains one of the vocal highlights of the performance. Kim Begley expertly reprises his pedantic Polonius, while Rosencrantz and Guildenstern return in the embodiment of Christopher Lowrey and Rupert Enticknap. If anything, their comedic expertise has sharpened. The two countertenor voices provide a distinctive contrast in the often dark vocal sound world of the opera.
Sarah Connolly, with a strong motherly presence, was a warm and sympathetic Gertrude at Glyndebourne. Cheryl Barker is one of Australia’s most admired and loved singers, and her soprano as opposed to Connolly’s mezzo added a new dimension to the role in Adelaide. The brighter yet still rich vocal quality perhaps enhances the anguish of this figure, caught between love for her son, loyalty to her new husband, and an increasing sense of guilt. Barker adds a vivid stage presence to the dramatic mix, and while the character remains a victim of the forces ranged against her, one senses a steely quality within the character.
Of great interest was Lorina Gore as Ophelia, a singer who made the character of Honey B so memorable in Dean’s first opera, Bliss (2010). Created by the phenomenal Canadian soprano Barbara Hannigan, Dean’s Ophelia was tailored to her extraordinary capacities. As in all Hamlet operas, the role is much expanded, the vocal highpoint being the mad scene. Apart from her dazzling vocal accomplishments, Hannigan brought an astounding physicality to the role. The mad scene included somersaults and bodily contortions seemingly defying gravity, all underpinning the vocal fireworks. Gore was certainly up to these challenges. Her lithe physical presence fully inhabited the physicality of the role, and her voice has a velvety sweetness that considerably added to the pathos and vulnerability of the character. She met the required vocal pyrotechnics with great aplomb, and her performance demonstrated how two very different singers could make the role equally effective in performance.
Other new assumptions included Jud Arthur as the Ghost, the first Player, and the Gravedigger. John Tomlinson is a hard act to follow, but Arthur has a dark, powerful voice and a commanding stage presence. Laertes was sung with clear, fluent and forthright tone by rising young tenor Samuel Sakker; his fight scene with Hamlet was most effective. Douglas McNicol’s Horatio was warm and sympathetic, more of a father figure than usual, but a dramatically effective foil to Clayton’s Hamlet.
Neil Armfield’s production transferred very effectively to this venue, once again demonstrating his deep understanding of the play. His vast experience directing opera as well as a huge variety and range of theatre is evident in the diamond-sharp coherence of this production. Whatever limitations the new venue might pose, they were certainly not in evidence.
The musical reins were taken over by Nicholas Carter, following the great Vladimir Jurowski at Glyndebourne. Belying his youthful appearance, Carter revealed a deep affinity with and understanding of Dean’s music; he controlled the performance with confidence, brio, and maturity. The complexities of the score held no terrors for the superb Adelaide Symphony, effortlessly creating Dean’s unique sound world. Once more, James Crabb is the manic accordionist; it is difficult to imagine the opera without the distinct sound of the instrument. The Glyndebourne chorus, made up of some of the best young singers from all over the world, is a hard act to follow, but the Festival Chorus acquitted themselves with great credit, boosted by members of The Song Company, all under the expert direction of Brett Weymark.
In a panel discussion during the Festival, Dean made enticing reference to potential future productions in the United States and Germany. A DVD of the Glyndebourne production is due out in late 2018. All the winds seem set fair for Hamlet to become a welcome part of the current operatic repertoire, an exemplar of how Shakespeare can be successfully adapted.
Hamlet was performed at the 2018 Adelaide Festival from 2 to 6 March. Performance attended: 6 March.
ABR Arts is generously supported by The Ian Potter Foundation and the ABR Patrons.