Glyndebourne’s new Hamlet

This year’s repertoire at Glyndebourne ranged from 1658 Cavalli to 2017 Brett Dean, by the latter a commissioned new version of Hamlet.

By Nils-Göran Olve

Dean is a 55-year-old Australian who spent 15 years as a violist in the Berlin Philharmonic. Dean has been a full-time composer since the year 2000. In that capacity he has become widely known, not least in Sweden where the Stockholm Concert Hall devoted its annual composer festival to him in 2011.

I liked this new Hamlet opera very much. There were several reasons for that, one of course being the quality of the play itself. But my main reason for enjoying this so much was that Dean’s Hamlet is a genuine opera

Instead of yet another production of Shakespeare’s play Hamlet. It seems that Dean and his associates have “decomposed” the text and dwell on fragments of it. Well-known words are repeated and shift owners, yet almost nothing – as I understand it – is added and it all becomes a new perspective on the play which seems faithful to it at the same time as it reveals significances I, for one, had not thought of before. With a story like Hamlet this may mostly prove my ignorance, but I’m talking about my experience rather than actual novelty.

Hamlet trailer -Glyndebourne Festival 2017

I’m not sure how this would have worked for a lesser known text, but here it deepened my acquaintance with the characters and their predicaments. Dean uses the orchestra in an unusually selective fashion, creating sounds which underline the vocal lines which are sometimes memorable in a way I seldom find in modern opera. So my impression was that I experienced something which would have been difficult to reach in a production of Hamlet as spoken theatre, thereby justifying the trouble of making a new opera.

It was also quite magnificently performed by major singing actors in all parts. Tenor Allan Clayton must be having the role of his career, tirelessly physical as well as richly varied in sound. I suppose it is intentional that in this production his Prince of Denmark may actually be insane, wrongly imagining that his father was murdered? High soprano Barbara Hannigan has yet another of those works written for her that few others will be able to take up. Mezzo Sarah Connolly and Baritone Rod Gilfry were the mostly uncommonly sane queen and new king, and 70-year old bass John Tomlinson really justified the trip to Glyndebourne as ghost, gravedigger and the first player. Vladimir Jurowski confirmed my impressions from former Glyndebourne seasons that he is a most able opera conductor.

In addition to Hamlet, this year I saw a rerun of Ariadne auf Naxos and a new production of Cavalli’s Hipermestra. I saw the former some years ago when it was new and heavily criticized by the press, although I liked it a lot even  then. Concentrating on Strauss’s wondrous use of the chamber-like orchestra. however I usually find the final 45 minutes just too long, as we get one more round of the comediants’ ensembles and that rather incomprehensible final duet. I’m now referring to the several productions I have seen and the maybe ten recordings I’m familiar with, including some of the 1912 version which for me is not preferable.

German producer Katharina Thoma imagines it all taking place at a country seat like Glyndebourne in 1940, with the preparations for a festive home-made night of opera interrupted by bombs. Following the interval, the mansion has been converted into a hospital ward where the characters in their traumas imagine and act out the classical references. Last time the cast I saw was partly undistinguished (Soile Isokoski past her prime as Ariadne, a rather sketchy execution of Zerbinetta’s aria from a cover singer, a strained Composer). This year it was much better. Like everyone I admired Lise Davidsen (Ariadne) as an immensely exciting future star soprano.

I liked her restrained acting more than some reviewers. But I also was stunned by the silent acting of Angela Brower’s Composer who in this production is onstage for almost all of the opera proper, And (as with Tomlinson in Hamlet) it was good to see veteran Thomas Allen once more as the Music master. A young German conductor, Cornelius Meister, visibly lived every bar and syllable of the opera, and while I in principle prefer rather less movement from opera conductors his enthusiasm seemed to be contagious for artists and audience alike.

For me, Cavalli’s Hipermestra was a more tricky one to appreciate. Historically it was valuable for me, as I’ve seen only three Cavalli operas (two of them very long ago) and only one or two 17th century operas not by Monteverdi or him. I think it was very well done and did engage me intellectually, if not really emotionally. Like with Monteverdi, it is fascinating and awe-inspiring to realize that those human relations depicted on stage 400 years ago are so recognizable and realistic, at least if we imagine ourselves in a war-zone similar to that of the story. But with the baggage of so much later music on my mind, the simple tunes and recitatives do not work for me. This was before the age of bravura singing, so it is the “truth” of text and music which should speak to me across the centuries and make me identify and commiserate with the characters on stage. For me this did not work. Several good singers, impressive stage pictures, but woefully long. Yet I’m glad to have seen it.

I expect to be back in future summers, and would welcome a second encounter with Dean’s Hamlet in some future year.

                                                 Nils Göran Olve