Opera ‘Hamlet’: Fewer Words, Words, Words; Yet Not To Be Missed

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Jacques Imbrailo as Horatio, from left, John Relyea as the Gravedigger, and Allan Clayton in the title role of Brett Dean’s ‘Hamlet’ at the Metropolitan Opera. (Photo by Karen Almond / Met Opera)

NEW YORK — Whoever foresaw the Metropolitan Opera embracing contemporary opera? This season began with Terence Blanchard’s Fire Shut Up in My Bones and embraced Matthew Aucoin’s Eurydice. The powerful final new production, which opened on May 13, showcased Australian composer Brett Dean’s Hamlet, premiered at the 2017 Glyndebourne Festival with several of the same leading singers. Well worth an encounter (or two), it plays through June 9, including an HD broadcast on Saturday, June 4.

Director Neil Armfield has helmed Shakespeare’s play on the “legitimate” stage and took part in the gestation of this operatic version; his dynamic production provides much of the excitement one experiences in watching it. But substantial credit is also due to librettist Matthew Jocelyn. Rather than following the conventional Shakespearean structure, he and Dean argued that what we know as “Hamlet” derives from many conflicting texts. The libretto draws from multiple sources and jettisons a great deal of the play, usually to concentrate on the interpersonal relationships.

Some aspects of the piece derive from its origin at Glyndebourne. The festival boasts an outstanding young chorus that over the decades has served as  training ground for many prominent soloists. A short list would include Janet Baker and Met luminaries Diana Montague, Thomas Allen, Barry Banks, Ryland Davies, Gerald Finley, and Peter Rose. Another is the internationally prominent Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother, both at the 2017 premiere and at the Met, Sarah Connolly. Regal in deportment, dramatically potent, she commands the role’s lower tessitura with authority, but regularly turns screamy at the top.

With the choral forces at his disposal, Dean furnished lavish and often imposing material for them: onstage, sometimes arrayed in the side boxes and (perhaps most successfully in terms of conveying specifically psychological extensions of the text) a group of nine offstage voices that on this occasion included such prominent rising singers as bass Wm. Clay Thompson and high soprano Ashley Milanese. All of the choral interventions proved well performed, and their use is obviously merited to give some aural contrast to the drama’s many private scenes. But their constant deployment over the evening seemed on first hearing to exceed the dramatic demands for them and to add to a certain overall relentless loudness in much of Dean’s score.

Sarah Connolly as Gertrude, from left, David Butt Philip as Laertes, and Rod Gilfry as Claudius. (Almond)

This Hamlet proves to be quite transfixing in the house and will doubtless appear so to HD audiences. However, those listening solely via the radio or web may not appreciate its full merits. Dean’s purely instrumental music — here alternately imposing and hauntingly minimal — is skillfully orchestrated, deftly incorporating a battery of electronic sounds for expressive coloristic purposes. The opera begins with an almost Rheingold-like sustained low chord. As with the operas of Berg, much of the emotional content of the piece is contained in the orchestral, rather than the vocal, writing. Newcomer conductor Nicholas Carter, an Australian based in Bern, obtained stunning playing from the Met orchestra.

Tenor Allan Clayton (Hamlet) has appeared in New York before as a Philharmonic Messiah soloist (2010 and 2013) and as Ferrando in a New York City Opera Così fan tutte under Christian Curnyn (2012). It’s a very British timbre, in the tradition of Robert Tear, Kim Begley, and Graham Clark: agile and musically responsive but, as Clark himself once memorably said, lacking tonal  “wine and sunshine.” Clayton’s voice and exuberant dramatic abilities figured signally in the opera’s composition, and his physically daring, intensely sung performance at this Met debut won an understandable ovation. Presumably his frequent abandoning vocal support to make parlando points accords with Dean’s intentions. His physical intensity — though sometimes evoking the “Aren’t I weird?” overkill of Vincent D’Onofrio on Law and Order: Criminal Intent — carries the piece, since one thing the score does not do is give Hamlet much in the way of musical equivalents to the play’s soliloquies. It’s heartening news that Clayton will return to this stage next year as Peter Grimes, a part as if made for his gifts.

Stocky and bearded, Clayton — in line with a few decades of British theatrical “innovation,” dating back at least to Nicol Williamson — is anything but the kind of matinee idol (John Barrymore, Leslie Howard, Laurence Olivier, Ralph Fiennes) traditionally cast as Hamlet. The bare-chested Ghost of John Relyea — who took over this run from the vocally and physically grizzled Glyndebourne creator John Tomlinson — cuts a much more gym-toned figure than his vacillating son. (Relyea’s roaring here is also far more effective and linguistically precise than his performance as the Inquisitor in the Met’s Don Carlos.) But Prince Hamlet is arrayed in casual but fashionable black, and his best friends (Horatio and Marcellus) are the glamorous Jacques Imbrailo and Justin Austin — both in Met bows — beautifully turned out in contemporary hipster wear. We’re apparently meant to identify with this threesome as the cool kids, standing apart from the conventional 1950s garb of the rest of the courtiers.

Brenda Rae as Ophelia and Allan Clayton at Hamlet. (Almond)

By contrast, the spying hangers-on Rosencrantz and Guildenstern — in a brilliant touch, cast as a pair of countertenors (more company debutants, Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen and Christopher Lowrey, two of the most mellifluous young countertenors in America and just as handsome as Imbrailo and Austin) come off as overdressed nerds in dated suits and ties. Lowrey (present at Glyndebourne) and Nussbaum Cohen skillfully negotiate writing that, in one of several Britten references in the score, derives from the circus mirrory-duetting of Peter Grimes’ Nieces. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern also remain at the Danish court, meeting their end not in the offstage stratagem Shakespeare’s Hamlet derives but as human shields for Claudius in the (thereby even more sanguinary) final rapier-and-poison-fueled bloodbath.

Imbrailo — one of the world’s leading exponents of Debussy’s Pelléas and Britten’s Billy Budd — sings beautifully, though he doesn’t have much distinctive music to voice until the final scene’s legato-ribbed variants on “Good night, sweet prince,” which he manages ravishingly. (Armfield’s homosocial final tableau of Horatio embracing and comforting Hamlet in death happens to echo David McVicar’s vision earlier this season of Rodrigue welcoming Don Carlos into eternal domestic partnership.)

Austin’s Marcellus has even less to sing but voices it with elegance and point; plus, he doubles as one of the lively Players whose Hamlet-ordered performance of The Murder of Gonzago confirms Claudius’ role in the elder Hamlet’s death. The troupe also includes Relyea in his second deployment — the third is as the sardonic Gravedigger — as well as fine tenor Chad Shelton (perhaps covering Laertes?) and yet another debuting singer, the promising New Zealander/Tongan Lindemann Young Artist tenor Manase Latu. Their rehearsal under Hamlet and Horatio’s supervision (and Polonius’ baffled gaze) is very funny: All of the famous, expected Hamlet lines get trotted out for hammy utterance; Jocelyn’s work abounds in such “meta” touches.

Hamlet (Allan Clayton, center left) and Laertes (David Butt Philip, right) square off with rapiers in the final scene of “Hamlet.” (Photo by Jonathan Tichler / Met Opera)

As Ophelia, Brenda Rae — as often with this gifted singer when in large auditoriums — registers as a mix of impressive (some remarkable negotiation of tough intervals, a haunting repeated utterance of “Never, never, never”) and questionable (a timbre tending to shakiness). I find the opera’s entire presentation of Ophelia somewhat disturbing and unbalanced. In the slice-and-dice version of the plot, we never see her fully sane; from her first entrance vocally and physically, she seems a damaged victim (I thought of Sweet Bird of Youth’s Heavenly Finley), lessening the shock of her eventual mad scene.

Certainly the revealing costume and flouting of terpsichorean skills demanded of Ophelia in this scene (which Rae brought off quite effectively) bespeak as surely as do the vocal leaps in her music the role’s Glyndebourne creator, Barbara Hannigan. Other veterans of the work’s premiere are Rod Gilfry’s strongly enacted and declaimed Claudius, Hamlet’s uncle become step-father, and tenor David Butt Philip’s trenchant Laertes, Ophelia’s brother, confirming the good impression his Boris Godunov Pretender made last fall. New to the endeavor, and delightfully acted and sung, is William Burden’s maître’d of a Polonius, Ophelia’s father. As always, this mellifluous tenor gives a master class in enunciation: He, Clayton, and Gilfry fared best in projecting the text clearly over the footlights.

Some patrons in the nearly full orchestra section departed at intermission, but that is nothing extraordinary at demanding operas. (I saw a young couple dressed for a glamorous date at the opera quit the recent searing Elektra revival about 20 minutes in.) Many more stayed to honor vociferously the committed contributions of Hamlet‘s creators (including composer Dean) and performers. In all, a fascinating evening at the Met.