Hamlet review at Glyndebourne, Lewes – ‘a powerful new score’
Australian composer Brett Dean’s operatic treatment of Hamlet, with a Bard-bowdlerising libretto by Matthew Jocelyn, premiered in Glyndebourne in June. Now it returns for the company’s autumn tour. The cast this time is less starry, but everyone impresses, both vocally and dramatically, including Jennifer France’s intense Ophelia, Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts’s menacing Polonius, William Dazeley’s villainous Claudius and Brian Bannatyne-Scott’s dour gravedigger.
David Butt Philip makes a strong impact in the title role, handling the demanding vocal lines with aplomb, although his prancing, falsetto-voiced madness is a shade too Monty Python to be taken seriously.
Neil Armfield’s modern-dress production conveys the action clearly without feeling rushed, despite the drastic abridgement, and Dean’s well-crafted, darkly brooding score captures the essence of the tragedy - or, at least, one aspect of it. The orchestral writing is viscerally powerful, with off-stage chorus, surround-sound electronics and microtones adding to the unsettling mood.
The problem is that, played out over three hours, the music’s relentlessness becomes increasingly wearing. The best Shakespeare operas – such as Verdi’s Otello or Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream – succeed because their composers encapsulate
Shakespeare’s universality, both light and shade. Despite its considerable strengths, and a few moments of levity – most effectively the semitone-duetting Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, delightful John Inman-channeling cameos from countertenors Rupert Enticknap and James Hall – Dean’s score unfolds as a disappointingly monochrome take on this most famous of tragedies. The brutal conclusion is appropriately epic, but merely shocking rather than heartbreaking, without the rays of hope that are so crucial to Shakespeare’s masterpiece.