Monday, March 5, 2018

On an musical underlay of brash modernity, Brett Dean's stirring Hamlet receives its Australian premiere at Adelaide Festival

Hamlet, Australian composer Brett Dean’s stirring new work commissioned by Glyndebourne Festival Opera - currently in its Australian premiere season at Adelaide Festival - liberally explores the psychological aspect of Shakespeare’s young Danish prince. Shakespeare’s Hamlet contains the immortal line penned a little over 400 years ago, “To be, or not to be”, so widely quoted and debated that, in those few shortest of words, we can expect to go round and round in circles for a long time to come deliberating over its meaning.

Act One, Scene One of Brett Dean's Hamlet, Adelaide Festival
Further broadening interpretations, the written word is able to wear multiple meanings when spoken. Perhaps they refer to the tussle between thought and action? Swiftly and concisely stated yes, but that’s the way it strikes me, these unadorned words that reflect the everyday ordinary conundrums humankind faces. Thus it is so for Shakespeare’s eponymous Hamlet, extraordinarily so, as he learns the ‘truth’ behind his father’s death from dead Old Hamlet himself, dramatically altering his psychological course and subsequent actions.

Dean’s Hamlet certainly has the potential to cement itself into the modern repertoire. It’s an unconventional piece, both musically and narratively, beginning with the famous soliloquy and it’s famous line chopped in half as “Or not to be” in a soundscape equally striking as it is unsettling. It’s a music-drama of sorts whose success will largely depend on a highly committed cast as skilled at acting as they are at operatic singing. It also requires the service of intellectual direction at the helm and a production concept that matches the score's brash melody-deficient modernity. Altogether, it points to a work that, like its germination, rests on taut collaboration.

That’s exactly what was witnessed at its Australian premiere on Friday night, an achievement in which powerfully nuanced performances are part and parcel of a production its entire creative team have fused marvellously to the text.

Allan Clayton as Hamlet
Shakespeare’s text it is, but condensed and rearranged from its three extant versions by Canadian librettist Matthew Jocelyn. It matters not that the reduced number of characters are often assigned lines belonging to another. What matters is that Jocelyn’s painstaking effort has resulted in a mostly lean, smooth and fluid two-act format that could easily be thought of as taking its cue from Hamlet’s own messed up, fractured circumstances.

Australian director Neil Armfield has built on it an insightful and compelling theatrical layer, one in which the surface formality and decorum of Elsinore breaks apart, light and dark are in flux and touches of humour counterbalance the unfolding tragedy. Opening with its delicately fenestrated neo-classical hall filled with familiar mid-20th century glamour and progressing through a series of fragmented revolves, deconstructions and spatial transformations, Australian theatre makers Ralph Myers’ sets and Alice Babidge’s costumes lend captivating support and a sense of immediacy. Adding revival lighting designer David Manion’s richly evocative moods that meet dramatic context head-on, it’s hard to imagine the whole mise en scène being more suitably realised.

Within these spaces, British tenor Allan Clayton leads a first-rate cast as young Hamlet (a good few of them, including Clayton, did the honours in Glyndebourne), brilliantly acting and singing his way through the Herculean demands of the title role. Without suggesting Hamlet is either mad of feigning to be, Clayton portrays a hyperactive misfit from the start, shabby in appearance and seemingly unintentionally irreverent of social norms. Clayton effectively balances vulnerability, reason and forthrightness on Hamlet’s vengeful path with an alluring, expressive and dynamic vocal outfit on a man you can’t but feel sympathy for.

Lorina Gore as Ophelia and Allan Clayton as Hamlet
Privileged son and daughter of power and - a not so far flung thought being entertained - incest, Clayton’s Hamlet also makes a perfectly plausible match for potent soprano Lorina Gore’s sensitively portrayed Ophelia. Gore’s nail-biting anxious and fidgety Ophelia helps to reinforce the grief Orphelia experiences after Hamlet declares, “I did love you once” before snowballing into the later tragic mad scene in which Gore writhes and suffers in mesmerising part sing-speak and heart wrenching operatic tradition - a performance highlight.

American Rod Gilfry’s suave, elastic and smouldering baritone befits a handsome but distrustful Claudius. Soprano Cheryl Barker is excellent as his new wife Gertrude, see-sawing between mother and wife, glorious in voice at the top with devastating darkness below. Robust British tenor Kim Begley suits up in a distinguished performance as the coercive and lordly Polonius and cool authority accompanies the mature and muscled tenor of Samuel Sakker’s imposing and sword-skilled Laertes, his son.

More or less joined at the hip and eventually by their shoelaces, the perfectly timed irradiant countertenors Rupert Enticknap and Christopher Lowrey added comic lightness as pawns in the King’s circle, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Jud Arthur digs deep into cavernous bass territory in a thrilling scene full of tension and shadows as a shirtless and brawny Ghost of Old Hamlet. Arthur follows up as Player 1, then literally pops up again as the matter-of-fact Gravedigger. And stalwart Australian baritone Douglas McNicol captures his loyalty for and gentle acceptance of his prince most sincerely as an older Horatio. Andrew Moran (Marcellus/Player 4), Beau Sandford (Player 2) and Norbert Hohl (Player 3) round out and compliment the quality cast with accordionist James Crabb squeezing out a good sound on stage during the play-within-a-play.

Rod Gilfry, Cheryl Barker, Christopher Lowrey and Rupert Enticknap
Under the exceptional command of conductor Nicholas Carter, the sonic diversity and depth of Dean’s score (as well as electronic sounds) were exposed with clarity to reveal its often frenzied, eerie and ominous elements, surely not a doddle for the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra but the playing was secure. Also in force of numbers and positioned in multiple locations of the theatre, the State Opera Chorus and members of The Song Company’s refined singing added ethereal touches and atmospheric weight.

What Dean and his team have done with Hamlet is create a work that not only has a strong underlying pulse, but one that could easily be appreciated by those unfamiliar with opera. Act One is long but not uncomfortably so despite the likelihood of momentary lapses of concentration. Together with the shorter second act, the work is almost three hours long. Strangely, when it was all over, I imagined it being performed without interval. And then I felt confident I’d enjoy being enraptured by each segueing scene as Hamlet’s verse sang out its turbulent story.

A Glyndebourne Festival Opera Production
Adelaide Festival
Festival Theatre
Until 6th March, 2018

Production Photos: Tony Lewis 

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