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Rapturous Response to Brett Dean’s Hamlet at UK Premiere

Allan Clayton as Hamlet, Image Credit: The Telegraph
Graham Strahle
| July 31, 2017

The curtains have closed for the time on Brett Dean’s Hamlet following its Glyndebourne world premiere in June and July, and critics have been almost unanimous in their praise for the new work. The general view is that it is a dramatically powerful adaptation of Shakespeare’s play, in which Dean and his librettist, Canadian writer Matthew Jocelyn, have distilled with intensity its themes of madness and demented ambition.

Summing up this new Hamlet for Bachtrack, David Karlin declared it as having successfully captured “the true essence” of Shakespeare’s intentions in his longest and arguably most complex play.

Dean’s music drew much rapturous comment, both in terms of its sophisticated handling of texture and the way he sustains tension over the work’s two long acts. One reviewer found Dean’s score “busy”, but others seem to have been deeply admiring of it. “Whatever else this operatic adaptation of Hamlet might be, it’s a polished piece of work,” wrote The Spectator’s Richard Bratby – he especially drew attention to its “glinting textures” and “shattering climaxes”. Michael Halliwell in the Australian Book Review was similarly enamoured, describing Dean’s music as “dazzling” and remarking that “it would be hard to name a contemporary opera composer his equal”.

Besides employing a large orchestra, Dean notably includes electronic effects that are projected around the auditorium.

Many critics also regarded Dean’s vocal writing highly. The Telegraph’s Rupert Christiansen described it as “graceful and expressive”, and Limelight’s Clive Paget found Dean’s second opera to be similarly lyrical to Bliss but a tauter work overall.

A clever aspect of Jocelyn’s libretto is that it threads fragments from the original play through the both acts of the opera, so that familiar lines (including the immortal “To be or not to be”) keep reappearing in different voices and contexts. Most felt this worked well as a unifying device.

The Glyndebourne cast was highly rated too, with particularly gutsy performances coming from Allan Clayton in the title role and Barbara Hannigan as Ophelia. Her virtuosity and gripping acting in the famous mad scene was for some the standout moment.

The UK reviews consistently gave Hamlet four out of five stars.

Australian director Neil Armfield led this Glyndebourne production, with Vladimir Jurowski conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra in the pit. It continues in regional venues in the UK until 1 December, and after that everything points to it being brought to Australia.

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