Sunday June 24, 2018


By Caroline Baum
June 16 2017

Hamlet at Glyndebourne Photography: above - Barbara Hannigan and Allan Clayton by Richard Hubert Smith; below - Jacques Imbrailo as Laertes, John Tomlinson as the Gravedigger and Allan Clayton by Bill Knight 


The Sunday Times review of the Glyndebourne Opera Festival world premiere of an operatic Hamlet began: “Forget Cumberbatch, forget even Gielgud” – a peculiar pairing omitting several greats (one of whom, Derek Jacobi, was sitting just a few rows ahead). But no matter the selective hyperbole: the gist of it was a five star rave, among other UK press hangings out of four and five stars for the adaptation by Australian composer Brett Dean, reunited with director Neil Armfield after their sparkling collaboration on the opera Bliss, based on the novel by Peter Carey. (And, come to think of it, also about a male identity crisis.) 

I want to cheer unequivocally for the Aussie creative team, ably reinforced by Armfield regulars, set designer Ralph Myers and costume designer Alice Babidge, who delivered an elegant aesthetic of pale formal rooms and 60s era satin ballgowns. But they must share the glory with other “colonials”: librettist Matthew Jocelyn for his audacious and judicious nipping and tucking of several folio texts, and the star of the show on the evening I attended, soprano Barbara Hannigan

Both are Canadians. Perhaps only an outsider would have the nerve to cut and paste such hallowed text with the cavalier brilliance Jocelyn demonstrates. He incises as finely as a surgeon to get to the heart of the matter, his suturing near invisible. And while his approach to the world's most famous soliloquy is downright cheeky, it works. 

As for Hannigan, she is the most touching and captivatingly mad Ophelia I have ever seen, hurling herself into her final scene with simultaneous wild physical abandon while singing dazzlingly high notes with total vocal control and dramatic conviction. There is something poignant and ironic about the weeds she pulls apart in the ordered bucolic setting of an opera house in the exquisite countryside of East Sussex, with its manicured croquet lawn, complete with a sign urging patrons not to picnic there. Though down by the dam she might have found a few crow flowers, thistles and daisies and one could easily imagine her drifting in its green, cloudy waters, her dress tangled in the roots of the water lilies blooming there. She acts her guts out and unlike many wan Ophelias, she lingers in the mind well beyond the performance. 

If I mention her so prominently it is because I came away with a stronger sense of her than of Hamlet himself. British tenor Allan Clayton plays him scruffy and shambling, bear-like. But is he witty, spoiled, brilliant, weak, indecisive, melancholy, bad or mad? Hard to say. He reminded me of the Hamlet in Thomas Ostermeier's stunning production for the Berlin Schaubuhne (seen some years ago at the Sydney Festival; the influence of this landmark production is acknowledged by Dean and Armfield in the program). The physique of the two performers was similar, but Clayton's performance is a milder, let’s say diluted version, more cautious or tentative although he seemed charged with energy during the encounter with his father's ghost and in the climax of the final, thrilling sword fight, which had me on the edge of my seat. But his personality remained uncertain and charismatically underpowered. 


American baritone Rod Gilfry was convincingly powerful as Claudius, especially in the scene in which he expresses remorse while praying as Hamlet considers whether to kill him . 

Yet the real hero of the piece is Dean's score, superb for the variation and invention of its colour and texture. He uses the entire theatre, sending the chorus out among the audience and creating unsettling effects of echoing dry reedy sounds to suggest rattled minds. At times the score seems almost more cinematic than operatic, creating atmosphere and tension worthy of Hitchcock, enhancing the orchestra’s power with electronic rumbles that sound volcanic and almost Wagnerian in their underworldly sonorities (the opera opens with a building grumble, quite suddenly, without any of the conventional tuning of instruments or acknowledgement of the conductor, Vladimir Jurowski). The chorus is magnificent at amplifying the mystery with a sometimes invisible presence. Casting two countertenors, dressed to resemble Gilbert and George to play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is inspired and offers light relief just when needed. 

But of course this being Glyndebourne, the performance is only half the thing (which reminds me that James Crabb, newly appointed artistic director of The Four Winds Festival at Bermagui in NSW, is superb on accordion as one of the Players, his instrument punctuating the singing with witty conversational interruptions). 

The pleasure of this experience is not just the creative excellence that Glyndebourne has nurtured for more than 70 years, it is the ritual that surrounds attendance: the ludicrous business of getting dressed up (black tie is still worn by most patrons) to get to the country nearly two hours from London in the middle of the afternoon to set up your picnic (there is a lazy option of eating at the pricey restaurant or cheaper cafe, but that really is for wimps) in a strategically advantageous spot in the rose garden, or by the water’s edge. I saw tables laden with what I can only describe as competitive canapés but the vibe is relaxed and pastoral. 

The whole thing could be suffocatingly pretentious and in past decades has been unapologetically elitist and exclusive, Glyndebourne being membership-based just like the All England Lawn Tennis Association and other fixtures of the summer “season.” But on the day I went, cheaper tickets meant a younger crowd was enjoying the grounds and gardens , peacocking their finery, taking selfies while sipping Pimms and admiring the contemporary sculptures adorning every vista. There was a sense that a new generation is enjoying its bucolic bijou status. They hollered and whooped at the end with genuine enthusiasm. In these uncertain times for Britain, the malaise at the Danish court is welcome relief from its own woes.



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