Left – Allan Clayton. Photo – Richard Hubert Smith
One of the daunting things about composing an opera from Shakespeare’s Hamlet must have been the knowledge that most people in the audience would actually know that play, and many would have seen it in all sorts of different versions. Matthew Jocelyn, the librettist for Brett Dean’s new opera, faces this squarely and in a very original way.
Michael Tippet famously said that to set a text you must first “break the back of the poetry”. I have never seen this done more effectively than in this opera. Although all of the text can be found somewhere in the original, much of it is omitted, not to save time, but because we know it. For example, when Hamlet says “The rest is…” we know that the missing word is “Silence”. And these fragments of the original text, from the opening “Dust…quintessence of dust”, “to be, or…” “the rank enseamed bed” and Joycean collocations like “…flights of angels sing thee to thy rest…the rest is…readiness is all” become leitmotifs running through the whole opera, underpinning but also undermining the brief sections where longer chunks of Shakespeare’s poetry emerge intact. Tellingly obsessive is the motif “Never” from Hamlet’s letter to Ophelia (“never doubt I love you”), which she takes up ironically, and the orchestra later develops, not ironically but with deep tragedy.
Brett Dean (whose idea this may have been in the first place) expands this multidimensionally, particularly in his use of the chorus, vividly sung by the State Opera Chorus and the Song Company. Not only do they sing on- and off-stage, as in most 19th century opera, but from the auditorium and in the orchestra pit. Having them sing from the auditorium, fortissimo, compels complicity in the action by the audience; having them as part of the orchestra involves their text, or vocal sound, in the instrumental tissue of the music. The orchestra is of course where the emotional depth of the work is expanded – that’s what Wagner does, but he didn’t think of putting singers there. While the stage singers are singing something else, the chorus takes up these repeated fragments of text, not, as in Greek tragedy, commenting of the action but deepening its psychological intensity. And this happens on the stage itself, as characters dwell on their own obsessions, creating ensembles out of dialogue.
This multidimensionality is something which the director, Neil Armfield, has realised with profound insight. With vast yet coherent imagination, he has marshalled everything – lighting, action, dress – to be at the service of Dean’s and Jocelyn’s conception. Hamlet prances around on the dinner tables. Gertrude exits at the end of the first part (act?) into a silent blackness. The stream of light into which she enters to describe Ophelia’s suicide, and her demeanour at that point, brings the stream in which Ophelia died onto the stage. And the ghost of Hamlet’s father, menacingly sung by Jud Arthur – well, thereby hangs a psychological tale. At his first appearance he seems just the kind of overbearing, authoritarian, coercive figure which could set in train the terrible events that follow. I was for more than a moment sympathetic with Gertrude for her complicity in his murder, in the same way that I am always on Clytemnestra’s side concerning the murder of Agamemnon in the Oresteia. Although there is no suggestion that Hamlet has done anything like killing his own daughter, here one can very clearly see Freud’s location of the origin of neurosis in parental abuse.
The result is a study of madness. There is no question in this work that Hamlet is certainly mad, not just putting it on. When Ophelia (wonderfully acted and beautifully sung by Lorina Gore) also goes mad, this seems almost like contagion from Hamlet, a result but also somehow a part of his own madness. The other characters are seen through his eyes alone – gone is the study of interacting characters for which Shakespeare is so famous. As with Verdi’s Otello, it is all about the protagonist. In this respect, just as Berg’s opera Lulu is inconceivable without the multiple 19th century operas in which the heroine dies, so Dean’s Hamlet is inconceivable without 20th century modernist psychological operas such as Berg’s Wozzeck.
Indeed, Wozzeck, another opera where the main character becomes unhinged as a result of the concatenation of events around him, is perhaps the strongest influence on Dean’s remarkable score. Based around an array of unusual percussion instruments, and seated upon the sound of double basses roaming around in the depths of the subconscious, glints from clarinets and flutes spark off the harp and upper string harmonics, alternating with the soft but terrible sound of muted trumpets and trombones. There is not much of what you might call melody, or even harmony – more a fragmeted metaphor for a confused mind, fast, rhythmically complex, and disorienting. But the music is absolutely riveting – I didn’t miss a note.
Dean has already had an operatic brush with madness, in the Bedlam scene of his other opera Bliss. Those who saw that will recognise in Hamlet his consummate handling of the orchestra. But both dramaturgically and in the tight interweaving of music and drama, Hamlet, in which he tackles madness full on, is a great advance on his earlier opera. Here he makes us ask the question, are we not all at least a little mad?
Clearly the success of this performance depended centrally on the portrayal of Hamlet himself, even more than in the original. Allan Clayton’s re-creation of this character is superb. He is onstage most of the time, singing and involved in the action for most of that (which doesn’t go without saying – think of Parsifal and Kundry in Parsifal) and Dean demands much more of him than “normal” singing – groans, sighs, wheezes of exasperation, the whole gamut of vocal utterances is called for. Neither voice nor stage action wavered from total commitment, and his performance is nothing short of mastery.
Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother, is actually fleshed out more than in Shakespeare. In Dean’s opera, it is she who delivers the speech describing the death of Ophelia, and Cheryl Barker delivered this rare moment of lyricism with a restraint that was both heartfelt and memorable. Claudius, on the other hand, convincingly performed by Roy Gilfrey, is shown as reactive and weak, a contrast to the hard strength of Hamlet’s father I mentioned earlier.
One of the issues facing an opera composer dealing with a cast which is so overbalanced with male characters is that it has only two singers with a soprano tessitura. To amplify the treble side of the vocal spectrum Dean sets Rosencranz and Guildenstern as countertenors. I wasn’t entirely convinced by them, partly because they reminded me of Ping, Pang and Pong in Turandot, though Rupert Enticknap and Christopher Lowry, who sang these roles, added some welcome light relief. (But why does this never work so well in opera as it does in spoken theatre?)
There is no Fortinbras to reconcile the audience, Friar Lawrence-like, to what has happened at the end of the drama. The elegy for Hamlet is given by Horatio, sung here by Douglas McNicol with a beautiful and moving warmth of tone. This elegy is the one point where the cellos cannot deny themselves a hint of lyricism. Now the tears must come.
Comparisons are notoriously odious, and the only other opera based on Hamlet of which I am aware, Ambrosia Thomas’, uses the play as an excuse for a love story with a mad scene (Ophelia’s) and some truly banal music. Dean’s opera is much more to be compared with Verdi’s two masterly adaptations of Shakespeare, Otello and Falstaff. Hamlet has their economy – it is amazing how much Dean gets through in the first half of the opera, the music running seamlessly, almost breathlessly, and with great energy as crucial moments in the drama flash before our eyes, and there is truly never a dull moment – yet it operates in a different dimension. This is not just a new opera. It is an opera of our time.
2018 Adelaide Festival
A Glyndebourne Festival Opera Production
by Brett Dean
Director Neil Armfield
Venue: Festival Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre
Dates: 2 – 6 March 2018
Tickets: $289 – $70