BWW Review: HAMLET: ADELAIDE FESTIVAL 2018 at Adelaide Festival Theatre
Reviewed by Barry Lenny, Friday 2nd March 2018.
Brett Dean's opera, Hamlet, had its premiere only last year at the Glyndebourne Festival Opera, and it has now come to Adelaide as part of the Adelaide Festival. This performance is by the State Opera of South Australia, conducted by Nicholas Carter, with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, the State Opera of South Australia Chorus, The Song Company, providing the semi-chorus, and soloists from all over the world, including a few of our fine local singers. Neil Armfield is, again, the director, bringing a strong theatricality to the work.
The performance begins with a barely audible low rumble that gradually increases while the light comes up on a large panelled room at Elsinore, filled with elegantly dressed guests at dining tables for the wedding of Gertrude and Claudius, Hamlet's just widowed mother, and his late father's brother. Upstage centre is a lone figure, clad in a heavy coat, head in hands. The chorus sings and he questions, "or not to be?", as librettist, Matthew Jocelyn, fragments Shakespeare's play, bringing that question right to the beginning.
Do not expect Shakespeare's dialogue to appear in the same order as his five-act play, or for the characters to present their own lines, or even for it to be there in its entirety. Fortinbras, for instance, has been completely eliminated, no longer even rating a mention, although this is not unusual in productions of the play, in an effort to reduce it from its full four-hour performance time.
British tenor, Allan Clayton, sings the titular role, having previously played it at Glyndebourne, so he brings that invaluable experience with him. His performance is riveting and he thoroughly deserved the massive applause and standing ovation at the end of the evening, with numerous curtain calls before the performers were permitted to go.
The role of Hamlet's mother, Queen Gertrude, is sung by soprano, Cheryl Barker, with baritone, Rod Gilfry, as Claudius. They are an inspired pairing, creating a good rapport, and easy togetherness, Barker conveying concern for Hamlet when he begins behaving oddly, and Gilfry suitably devious as he plots Hamlet's death.
Soprano, Lorina Gore, is sensational in the role of Ophelia, her 'mad scene' terrifying in its intensity, with Dean's score adding greatly to the emotional impetus.
Tenor, Kim Begley, has the role of Polonius, father of Laertes and Ophelia and wonderfully shows his anguish at her suicide. His son, Laertes is sung by tenor, Samuel Sakker, easily led by Claudius into anger and determined for revenge at all costs.
Baritone, Douglas McNicol, plays Horatio, Hamlet's closest friend, in a warm and supportive interpretation of the role, providing an insight into Hamlet's behaviour through his interaction with him.
Bass, Jud Arthur is kept busy, marvellously portraying the roles of the ghost of Hamlet's father, the gravedigger, and the player king. His entry as the gravedigger came as a surprise to everybody in the audience, and elicited a reaction, but his performance far overshadowed that little clever piece of staging.
Also formerly with the Glyndebourne production, countertenors, Rupert Enticknap and Christopher Lowrey, bring high-camp humour to the roles of the King's henchmen, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. With their matching suits, coordinated movements, and overlapping lines, I could not help but think of Walt Disney's cartoon portrayal of Tweedledum and Tweedledee.
If your idea of opera is pretty melodies, that you are able to whistle as you leave, and easily followed harmonies, then this will give you a very different perspective. Even Debussy's Pelleas et Melisande is easily approachable compared to Benjamin Britten's Peter Grimes, Stravinsky's L'histoire du Soldat, Francis Poulenc's Les Mamelles de Tirésias, and then to Alban Berg's Wozzek, or Lulu, and Arnold Schönberg's Moses und Aron, or Pierrot Lunaire. These were early forerunners to Dean's opera, increasing progressively in atonality. Dean now takes it a step further.
Aside from a fiendishly difficult score, Dean brings in extra sounds from electronics, percussion heard through the open doors to the balconies on either side, balconies that are also used occasionally by a divided chorus, and he even employs an onstage instrument, a five-row continental button accordion which, from where I sat, appeared to be a B system, played, with considerable skill, by James Crabb. Bob Scott, and Brett Dean, himself, are in charge of the sound.
Conductor, Nicholas Carter, has to be heartily congratulated for his superb efforts with musicians and singers alike in bringing this work to fruition. The musicians and singers, of course, also deserve great credit. This opera is a remarkable achievement although, looking at a good many empty seats after the interval, not, perhaps, to everybody's tastes.
If you want to try something different, then do get tickets for this incredible work, if there are any left. Opening night was a full house, and there are only two more performances.