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Hamlet review at Glyndebourne, Lewes – ‘uneven Shakespeare opera’

The cast of Hamlet at Glyndebourne, Lewes. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith The cast of Hamlet at Glyndebourne, Lewes. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith
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Back in 2010 Australian composer Brett Dean had an enormous success with his first opera Bliss, based on a novel by Peter Carey, and now follows it with this major Glyndebourne commission.

Shakespeare’s play proves the tougher proposition. Though it’s been attempted several times most notably by Ambroise Thomas, whose French grand opera of 1868 commands respect – thus far no one has turned Hamlet into an operatic masterpiece.

Dean’s effort is an appreciable one. A highly skilled composer, he has produced a score whose sound-world is complex yet immediate, setting Matthew Jocelyn’s filleted edition of Shakespeare in a way that maintains narrative clarity, even if it is hard not to feel that some of the characters are a bit short-changed.

With his discrete use of electronics, instrumental groups in the auditorium, eight singers performing wordlessly in the pit, plus an accordionist (James Crabb) prominent in the play-within-the-play sequence, he maintains a high level of musical interest, though one rarely feels that the score is at the centre of the dramatic experience.

Neil Armfield’s production is clear and effective, and all of the leading roles are performed with conviction. Dominating scene after scene, Allan Clayton’s Hamlet is physically and vocally tireless. Rod Gilfry is the uneasy Claudius, Sarah Connolly engrossing in her growing desperation as Gertrude.

Barbara Hannigan’s troubled Ophelia, David Butt Philip’s impassioned Laertes and Jacques Imbrailo’s honest Horatio all make notable contributions, while Kim Begley’s courtly Polonius and John Tomlinson’s compendium of roles – the Ghost of Hamlet’s father, the Gravedigger and the First Player – are memorable achievements.

Conductor Vladimir Jurowski maintains firm control over a musical performance in which the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Glyndebourne’s chorus both excel; yet despite many fine qualities, the whole adds up to less than the sum of its parts.


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Brett Dean’s uneven Shakespeare opera is launched with some style at Glyndebourne