Wednesday 25 October 2017

Glyndebourne on Tour: Brett Dean's Hamlet in strong revival and mesmerising performances

Brett Dean: Hamlet - Glyndebourne on Tour - Gavan Ring, Brian Bannatyne Scott, David Butt Philip (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Brett Dean: Hamlet - Glyndebourne on Tour - Gavan Ring, Brian Bannatyne Scott, David Butt Philip (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Brett Dean & Matthew Jocelyn Hamlet; David Butt Philip, Jennifer France, William Dazeley, Louise Winter, Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts, dir: Neil Armfield / Lloyd Wood, cond: Duncan Ward; Glyndebourne on Tour
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Oct 24 2017 Star rating: 4.0
A mesmerising account of the title role is at the centre of this strong revival of Brett Dean's new opera

Brett Dean: Hamlet - Glyndebourne on Tour - William Dazeley, Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts, Louise Winter (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
William Dazeley, Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts, Louise Winter
(Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Brett Dean and Matthew Jocelyn's new opera Hamlet was a striking feature of this Summer's Glyndebourne Festival and, rather impressively, the company is taking this large and complex work on tour. We caught the Glyndebourne on Tour performance at Glyndebourne on Tuesday 24 October 2017. Both work and production have been tweaked for the tour, and Glyndebourne is fielding a strong new cast. Neil Armfield's production has been revived by Lloyd Wood (sets by Ralph Myers, costumes by Alice Babidge) and Duncan Ward conducts.

David Butt Philip is Hamlet (he played Laertes in the Summer), with William Dazeley as Claudius, Jennifer France as Ophelia, Rupert Charlesworth as Laertes, Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts as Polonius, Gavan Ring as Horatio, Louise Winter as Gertrude, Brian Bannatyne Scott as the Ghost, the Gravedigger and Player 1, Rupert Enticknap as Rosencrantz and James Hall as Guildenstern.

Brett Dean: Hamlet - Glyndebourne on Tour - Jennifer France (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Jennifer France (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Hamlet the opera is not Hamlet the play, but Dean and Jocelyn have kept most of the major incidents and characters. This is clearly a telling based on Shakespeare's story, and Dean and Jocelyn tell their story engagingly and efficiently. Dean has written highly atmospheric and striking music, and whilst his instrumental-like vocal lines are not always memorable he certainly does not make the mistake of resorting to noodling, these are clearly defined vocal characters.

Two elements of the opera stand out, the orchestral writing which is simply brilliant, full of colour and effect whilst leaving room for the voices, and a title role which give great scope for a singing actor. Here, thrillingly delivered by David Butt Philip.

But the sheer inclusivity of the plot is a weakness. With a first act lasting nearly two hours, do we really need so much pompous persiflage from Polonius (Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts), or do we need the comic counter-tenor twittering from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Rupert Enticknap and James Hall), in fact do we need them at all? And the scene with the players seemed self indulgently long. I have to confess that by the end of Act One, I rather agreed with the woman behind me who exclaimed 'thank goodness for that' when the interval appeared. There seemed to be too many moments when Dean and Jocelyn seemed to say to each other, this is a good bit we must include it, rather than asking whether the opera actually needed it.

Brett Dean: Hamlet - Glyndebourne on Tour - Rupert Charlesworth, William Dazeley (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Rupert Charlesworth, William Dazeley (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
We start in media res, Hamlet (David Butt Philip) meditating at Gertrude (Louise Winter) and Claudius' (William Dazeley) wedding, and it is in the solo and contemplative moments that the opera worked best for me. But this Hamlet never seems to be presented to us as a rational human being, he is intense and tormented from the beginning. Dean and Jocelyn never seem to question whether he is mad, or at least this it not clear. Perhaps because this Hamlet does not break the fourth wall and talk to the audience. Within these parameters, David Butt Philip gives a career defining performance. Highly physical and mesmerisingly watchable, at times he almost physically makes the opera work, wrenching our attention back to the central core.

Jennifer France makes a poignant Ophelia. Anxiously twittering at first; in her dialogue with Laertes (Rupert Charlesworth) I was very much aware of the problems of setting Shakespeare direct, we had too many obscure words and too much clotted syntax. But in Act Two, France knocked us flat with the mad scene, though I wished that Dean had not been so conventional with the voice type. Another highlight of Act Two was Louise Winter's account of Gertrude's 'There is a willow aslant a brook', simple, powerful and very effective, though elsewhere Gertrude seemed too functional and the Act One scene with Hamlet in her closet did not wrench the gut the way it should.

William Dazeley played Claudius as classic villain, that seems to be the way the role is written, only in his powerful scene at prayer did we move to something more complex. Whilst I could admire Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts's artistry, I was thankful he made Polonius only mildly annoying. Rupert Charlesworth was wonderfully virile and vibrant as Laertes. Brian Bannatyne-Scott had great fun with his triple role, unnerving as the Ghost, pawkily funny as the grave digger and highly theatrical as the player. Rupert Enticknap and James Hall made an amazing double act as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Gavan Ring made a strong Horatio, perhaps less a character than a necessary foil for Hamlet.

The players also included John Mackenzie-Lavansch (who also played Marcellos), and two members of the Glyndebourne Chorus, John Findon and Anthony Osborne, providing characterful support, and the accordion player Milos Milivojevic, adding to the sonic fascination.

The chorus were on strong form, clearly accustomed to both production and musical style. In the pit, Duncan Ward drew fascinating sounds from the orchestra (which included voices and electronix), sometimes making the orchestral contribution mesmerising its own right.

Brett Dean: Hamlet - Glyndebourne on Tour - Jennifer France, David Butt Philip (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Brett Dean: Hamlet - Glyndebourne on Tour - Jennifer France, David Butt Philip (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Brett Dean's Hamlet is not only a major new work, but one which drew a capacity crowd which is not bad thing for a contemporary opera. The sheer clarity with which the piece tells the story is perhaps no bad thing when it comes to attracting audiences nervous of contemporary opera. Whilst David Butt Philip rightly dominated the performance with his vividly intense performance, all concerned contributed to a very strong performance.

I came out wishing that Glyndebourne might, at a future date, give us a Hamlet season. It is unlikely, but just think of the fascination of hearing Brett Dean's version alongside Ambroise Thomas' French grand opera version and one of the Baroque settings (there is, I believe an Agostino Steffani Ambleto), as well as the original play!

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