Tonight at the opera: Shakespeare edition, vol. 1

As luck and coincidence would have it, I’m seeing two operas based on a Shakespeare play back to back this summer. This past Saturday, I went to Glyndebourne to see the Australian composer Brett Dean’s Hamlet, and on Sunday, I’m seeing Verdi’s Otello (yes, with That Tenor) at the Royal Opera. The Glyndebourne trip was a bit of a bonus – for a long time I wasn’t going because I couldn’t persuade my regular opera friends of the virtues of contemporary opera, and Glyndebourne isn’t really a place where you rock up alone, but a few fellow Sarah fans invited me to go with them, and so I got to put on my glad rags (a beaded, midnight blue vintage skirt, a refashioned merino wool jumper in matching blue, a pair of gold pumps and my 1950s cocktail ring, if you must know) and head to the South Downs. This was my second trip to Glyndebourne, and I still haven’t had a picnic out in the gardens – after a gloriously sunny couple of weeks, the Saturday was cloudy and gloomy, trying to rain but not quite managing, the hills hidden by thick mist when I arrived. In the end, despite all the trouble getting there (coaches, trains, buses, London traffic, the usual story), it was a good day, with a picnic on the terrace and drinks afterwards.

We managed not to take a group selfie, but here’ me not quite managing one by myself. In the picture on the right, my mate Kristin (on the left), with her husband Dan’s ear closest to the camera on the right.

Hamlet is not my favourite Shakespeare play. To be honest, it probably doesn’t break it into my personal top five. It is objectively a great one tho, the longest, most monumental achievement in Shakespeare’s career, a play of multiple layers and overlapping stories, from the political situation of Denmark, in war with its neighbouring Norway, to Ophelia’s frustrated love for Hamlet. It is introspective, hesitant, claustrophobic, its world like the fetid pool Ophelia drowns herself in. Matthew Jocelyn has elected to set the political elements of the play completely aside, writing out the whole context of war and changing power dynamic and corruption, and to focus on the dysfunctional family drama instead. He has left out whole scenes –  Claudio doesn’t send Hamlet to England, and consequently Hamlet doesn’t send Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to their deaths; instead they die during the duel at the end of Act 2; the opera ends with Horatio cradling Hamlet’s dead body, without Fortinbras making his entry. The cuts are justified in making this solely a study on the character of Hamlet and the royal family.

This streamlining works in the sense that the narrative integrity remains and nothing sticks out as not making sense at all, but by choosing this particular angle, these particular textual cuts, Jocelyn has done away with a lot of the moral ambiguities of Hamlet’s character in particular. He may kill Polonius by accident, but he causes the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern knowingly, without much guilt or remorse; he may feel guilt for Ophelia’s death but the second half of his letter to her, left out from this libretto, suggests that actually, he probably doesn’t love her at all. Some of the characters also don’t get quite enough attention – Claudius could have been expanded more as both him kissing his crown, and falling on his knees in remorse for killing his brother seemed to come from nowhere in particular; we don’t know if he loves Gertrude or married her because she’s the queen. And while I liked the fact that Hamlet’s rage against his mother seemed genuinely to rise from his grief for the father, who has been institutionally forgotten so soon after his death, rather than from some oedipal lust, I thought the libretto could have made more of Gertrude’s motives for making the choices that she has – if they have been choices at all.

I’m not expert enough to really judge the Brett Dean’s score, other than to say that it is intense and dynamic, and perhaps lacking in expressing the stuffiness that is so essential to the play. Like many contemporary opera composers, he has chosen to deploy a whole host of musical special effects (at times you can hear kitchen foil being torn, for example) and unusual instruments. My seat was on the front row of the upper circle, and so I could see both the “invisible choir” in the pit and the musicians in the slips, the effects perhaps suffering slightly because of their relative position. It didn’t exactly feel gimmicky, but at times it came close. If I was purely judging this as a piece of work, I’d say that it’s a good opera but not a genius masterpiece, for me just something missing for it to connect emotionally, to leave the lingering sense of awe that I have had after seeing the play itself.

If the opera itself just falls short, the orchestra (conducted by Vladimir Jurowski) and the cast (directed by Neil Armfield), give absolute 110%. Allan Clayton’s performance is astonishing – in the elegance of the Elsinore court, he’s the ragamuffin, the purposefully disruptive force constantly on the move, childish, annoying and aggressive – how he can keep up vocally is beyond me. Gilfry is a suave Claudius, Dame Sarah Connolly starts out all regal and condescending and grows increasingly distraught as Gertrude; their relationship with each other is left unexplained although I’m pretty sure it’s not a love match. Barbara Hannigan is great as a very modern Ophelia, and John Tomlinson does his usual thing in all three of his roles. The bum note for me were Rupert Enticknap and Christopher Lowrey as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, as the very epitome of standard fare comic relief; the singing is fine but the Tweedledee & Tweedledum routine did nothing to me. The production is elegant and unobtrusive, with a single moveable set and beautiful early 1960s style costumes (think Jackie Kennedy).

A dinner interval creep shot – find the Oscar winning film director in the picture.

Hamlet has three performances left – 27th and 30th June, and 6th July, which will also be streamed online on their website. Some tickets remain. From October onward, it will tour with the second the cast.

The production photos are from the Glyndebourne website, the rest are mine.

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