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Hailed by the UK’s Sunday Times as "unmissable" and “the operatic event of the year”, Australian composer Brett Dean’s Hamlet, which premiered to rave reviews at Glyndebourne Festival Opera in June, is coming to Australia as the centrepiece of the 2018 Adelaide Festival.
Directed by Neil Armfield, who is a Joint Artistic Director of the Festival with Rachel Healy, the opera will open the Festival on March 2. It follows the phenomenal success of Barrie Kosky’s ravishing production of Handel’s oratorio Saul, which launched the 2017 Adelaide Festival – Armfield’s and Healey’s first – after having also originated at Glyndebourne.
Allan Clayton as Hamlet @ Glyndebourne Productions Ltd. Photo © Richard Hubert Smith
In a four-star review of the Glyndebourne opening of Hamlet, Limelight Editor Clive Paget said: “Dean’s Hamlet is a rare thing, an authentic musical interpretation of a play that both enhances Shakespeare and is very much its own master. As an opera for today, it deserves to enter the repertoire.”
The Times gave it five stars and called it “a magnificent new opera”,The Guardian said, “New opera doesn’t often get to sound this good”, while The Spectator described it as "a polished piece of work, wondrously refined".
“Directing Brett’s Hamlet has been one of the richest and loveliest experiences of my career. I was able to build on my memory of the Hamlet we did at Belvoir in 1994, seen in Adelaide in 1995, with Richard Roxburgh, Geoffrey Rush, Cate Blanchett and Gillian Jones. Everything seemed to work for us in Glyndebourne: every day was a revelation with Brett's music meeting the power and wit of Matthew [Jocelyn]’s libretto with profound and thrilling results. When the audience stood and cheered at the conclusion of the premiere performance we knew we’d witnessed the birth of a great new opera,” said Armfield in a statement.
At a press conference in Sydney on Tuesday, Armfield said that he had been involved with the opera from the very beginning – even before Canadian librettist Matthew Jocelyn came on board – having directed Dean’s first opera Bliss (based on Peter Carey’s novel) in 2010.
Having got to know Shakespeare’s play intimately while directing it for Belvoir – one of the productions he is most proud of – Armfield said he began working on Dean’s Hamlet “with some sense of the mental architecture of a production, against which I could answer all the questions that Brett had in the process of developing the libretto with Matthew Jocelyn, and sort of argue on behalf of certain characters. When Brett came up with the idea that Horatio could maybe be played on stage by a dog, I thought he’d been in Berlin too long and pointed out that Horatio’s grieving over the body of Hamlet right at the end of the work is actually the moment where the weight of the tragedy hits you.”
Asked to elucidate on Dean’s canine suggestion, Armfield explained that Dean’s wife Heather Betts, who is a painter, “had commented that Horatio’s loyalty was dog-like and that had triggered something in Brett” but that “it was a passing thought”. As well as having an Australian composer and director, the production’s creative team includes Australian designers Ralph Myers (set) and Alice Babidge (costumes), along with British lighting designer Jon Clark.
Allan Clayton as Hamlet and Kim Begley as Polonius @ Glyndebourne Productions Ltd. Photo © Richard Hubert Smith
Many of the outstanding original cast will be coming to Adelaide for the exclusive Australian season. British tenor Allan Clayton will reprise his performance as Hamlet, along with American baritone Rod Gilfry as Claudius and British tenor Kim Begley as Polonius. British counter-tenor Rupert Enticknap and American counter-tenor Christopher Lowrey (who played David in the Adelaide season of Saul), will also return as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
Several Australian singers are joining the production for Adelaide including Cheryl Barker as Gertrude, Lorina Gore (who played Honey Barbara in Bliss) as Ophelia, Sam Sakker as Laertes and Douglas McNicol as Horatio, along with the State Opera of South Australia Chorus. Dean’s score will be performed by the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra under the baton of its Principal Conductor Nicholas Carter.
Armfield, Healey and producer Mary Vallentine said that Hamlet is a bigger production than Saul, with a larger cast and orchestra and a bigger, more complex set, which is being shipped from the UK. Armfield told the media that when the opera opened in Glyndebourne, “there was a sense of something extremely special among the cast”, adding later that “the Holy Grail [of new operas] is really the potential for the work to enter the repertoire… On opening night, everyone was saying this feels like a work that could enter the canon and in terms of the pick-up of interest from other houses in Europe and houses in America since opening, it seems that this work has hit a kind of ignition.”
Saul sold out five months ahead of its Adelaide Festival season. Healy and Armfield encouraged anyone wanting to see Hamlet to book a ticket as soon as they go on sale.
Hamlet plays at the Festival Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre, March 2, 4 and 6. Tickets go on sale to Friends of the Adelaide Festival on August 17 and to the general public on August 31.