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Composing an opera based on Shakespeare's Hamlet is daunting challenge. Australian-born composer Brett Dean, winner of the prestigious 2009 Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition, is definitely up to the task. Now dividing his time between Melbourne and Berlin, Dean brings a wealth of experience to his craft. A talented violist, he was a member of the viola section of the Berlin Philharmonic for 14 years beginning in 1984, and continues to perform as a soloist. With his ears smack in the middle of the BPO strings, he developed a sense of the unique colour of each instrument and gained a strong sense of what an orchestra is capable of, both in traditional repertoire and more experimental works. He has also enjoyed a serious international career as a conductor of his own works, as well as more standard repertoire.

Hamlet, Dean's second opera, is a joint creation with Canadian librettist Matthew Jocelyn, previously the Artistic and General Director of Canadian Stage in Toronto. It had its premiere at Glyndebourne in 2017 in a production directed by Neil Armfield, with Vladimir Jurowski conducting the London Philharmonic. The work instantly garnered great acclaim and was named World Premiere of the Year at the 2018 International Opera Awards in London.

This DVD release from that production was filmed on June 30 and July 6, 2017, with a great cast that includes three British tenors: Allan Clayton in the title role, David Butt Philip as Laertes and Kim Begley as Polonius. Joining them are American baritone Rod Gilfry (Claudius), Canadian soprano Barbara Hannigan (Ophelia) and South African baritone Jacques Imbrailo (Horatio). The parts of Shakespeare's mildly comical duo Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (made even more amusing and ubiquitous here, akin to Tweedledum and Tweedledee) are taken by two British countertenors, Rupert Enticknap and Christopher Lowrey. Finally, two titled Brits bring a special dignity to their roles: mezzo Dame Sarah Connolly (Gertrude) and bass Sir John Tomlinson (Ghost, Gravedigger, Player 1).

Set in modern dress, this Hamlet pares down the play's five acts to just two. Some minor characters (Fortinbras, Bernardo, Francisco) have been eliminated, several scene elements have adjusted timelines, and many, many lines of text have been omitted and/or shuffled around or heard as fragments. Such was the case, of course, with Gielgud's legendary 1948 film of the play, truncated to death but still a masterpiece. Likewise, Dean and Jocelyn's Hamlet works marvelously, capturing the dark and brooding character of the drama. The entire cast wears ghostly white face makeup, and Tomlinson as the Ghost is entirely white, shirtless and with white full beard and hair. Together with his booming bass, he is an eerie figure.

The innovative score is transparent, chamber-music-like, and astonishingly beautiful. It makes substantial use of surround-sound electronics and hushed, dissonant clusters. The vocal lines are always clear and multi-layered. There are haunting whispering effects from the chorus, which sings from the pit rather than on stage. In contrast with the tuxedoed Claudius, Clayton's Hamlet stands out from the crowd, with his scruffy hair and beard and a grungy overcoat. He takes on the role with gusto.

Hannigan brilliantly probes the pitiful Ophelia, turning in some thrilling stratospheric singing, especially in the "Get thee to a nunnery" scene. Gilfry and Connolly make an elegant if suspicious pair as the usurper king and his new bride. Connolly has one of the most moving scenes in the opera when she enters to quietly announce Ophelia's death, to the accompaniment of feathery woodwinds and finely textured strings, while Laertes weeps softly. All leads to the final, grisly sword fight, which is dramatically staged.

The DVD set includes some only mildly interesting extra features, including interviews with the composer, librettist, cast members and members of the orchestra demonstrating how certain sound effects were achieved. Strangely, there is no track listing in the booklet and the viewer is able to see the track names only when selecting from the onscreen menus. These are minor drawbacks, though. This is a powerful opera, magnificently sung, that deserves wide attention.
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Publication:Opera Canada
Date:Jun 22, 2019

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