Festival Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre
March 2, 2018

Last year, Neil Armfield and Rachel Healy opened their first Adelaide Festival as co-Artistic Directors with Barrie Kosky’s fabulous staging of Handel’s Saul, which had premiered at the Glyndebourne Festival. It proved a rapturously received, sell-out success.

Their second Festival opened last night with another operatic production that began life at Glyndebourne (reviewed by Limelight) – only this time not only is the director Australian but the composer and most of the creative team too. Like Saul, Brett Dean’s 2017 opera Hamlet, directed by Armfield, is a thrilling Festival opening event and an important moment for Australian opera.

Hamlet, Brett Dean, Adelaide FestivalAllan Clayton as Hamlet at the Adelaide Festival. Photo © Tony Lewis

Hamlet is Australian composer Brett Dean’s second opera, following Bliss, which premiered in 2010, based on Peter Carey’s novel. He and Canadian librettist Matthew Jocelyn have carved their opera from Shakespeare’s play but drawn freely from the three existing versions. They have also mixed things up to intensify their exploration of the inside of Hamlet’s fracturing mind. Key lines of dialogue are relocated, riffed upon and given to different characters, including the Players. Fortinbras has gone, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern remain in Denmark until the final bloodbath.

Though it may sound discombobulating, it works exceptionally well, plunging us into Hamlet’s neurosis. Armfield’s superb, contemporary production also works hand-in-glove with Dean’s visceral score to immerse us in the strange world of the music drama.

The opera begins with a low electronic rumble, that builds to an ominous wave of sound as Hamlet stands centre-stage with his hands over his eyes. Surrounded by tables and guests for the banquet held by Claudius and Gertrude, Hamlet immediately stands out from the glamorously clad crowd with his jeans, overcoat, hipster beard and bad-boy demeanour.

He is soon joined by Ophelia, who is being hounded by her brother Laertes and father Polonius. She is clearly already a fragile figure, on the edge. When she and Hamlet sit next to each other and grasp each other’s hand they are like two sad, lost children.

The opera wastes no time in unleashing the play’s most famous of phrases, though slightly altered: “or not to be…or not…to be”, revisited later in the piece. Hamlet also prefigures the tragic ending, saying “the rest is….”. The “silence” remains, well, silent.

Hamlet, Adelaide Festival, Brett DeanBrett Dean’s Hamlet at the Adelaide Festival. Photo © Tony Lewis

Armfield directed a famous production of the play at Belvoir St Theatre in 1994 starring Richard Roxburgh, Cate Blanchett and Geoffrey Rush and the humanity and truthfulness that pulsed through the play then informs his approach here. He stages the opera on a monumental but fleet-footed set designed by Ralph Myers. Towering ivory walls with huge windows and doors, which dwarf the characters, are quickly reconfigured to create different performance spaces. For the appearance of the ghost of Hamlet’s father, the banquet tables vanish in the flash of an eye to leave an open stage with pale light slanting through side windows (a beautiful lighting design by Jon Clark), while a small door into back wall opens to reveal a spookily lit haze.

For the scene with the Players, the set pieces are turned around to create a backstage area with old-fashioned footlights along the front of the stage and a costume rack, which later becomes the arras behind which Polonius hides from Hamlet. There are also stunning dramatic effects such as the descent of the set for the grave yard scene from the flies. Alice Babidge’s contemporary costuming is also highly effective.

Dean’s surging, restless score is full of unsettling sounds from human noises (whispering, gasps, shrieks and guttural grunt) to electronic sounds. There are also gorgeous, spine-tingling choruses, ensembles and powerful duets, as well as a sublimely lovely setting of “There is a willow grows askant a brook” for Gertrude. He also uses plenty of percussion and discordant notes to create an eerie, disturbing, atmospheric sonic world.

Hamlet, Brett Dean, Adelaide FestivalRod Gilfry in Hamlet at the Adelaide Festival. Photo © Tony Lewis

In Glyndebourne, as British classical music journalist (and Limelight contributor) Alexandra Coghlan explains in an article in the program, two instrumental trios were positioned up in the gallery to create a surround-sound, while a semi-chorus sang from the pit, and sub-woofers under the stalls added electronic sounds and vibrations to the live orchestral score. Here I was aware of singers in the dress circle boxes, and percussive sounds coming from somewhere to the side of the auditorium – all helping to pull us into the world on stage.

Nicholas Carter, Principal Conductor of the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, leads the ASO in a terrific reading of the score, while there are stunning performances of the highly demanding vocal lines from all the singers.

British tenor Allan Clayton, who played Hamlet in the Glyndebourne premiere, reprises the role here and is sensational – a strong actor with a sharp sense of comic timing who gives us a keen insight into Hamlet’s troubled mind, tapping both his playfulness and his vulnerability. His handling of the text is impeccable and cleanly, clearly delivered and his warm tenor copes (seemingly) effortlessly with the challenging score. He creates a very sympathetic character that we care about.

Other performers from the original Glyndebourne production are baritone Rod Gilfry, excellent as an autocratic, cold-hearted Claudius, tenor Kim Begley as the pedantic, blustering Polonius (with Jocelyn having fun with his “I will be brief” comment), and counter tenors Rupert Enticknap and Christopher Lowrey as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. The latter two are portrayed as a Tweedledum and Tweedledee-like pair of comical, camp courtiers, and are very funny.

Hamlet, Adelaide Festival, Brett DeanLorina Gore and Allan Clayton in Hamlet at the Adelaide Festival. Photo © Tony Lewis

Lorina Gore (looking a little like Amy Winehouse) is also outstanding as the fragile Ophelia, her soprano flying hither and thither, into the upper reaches, as Hamlet’s rejection of her and her father’s death take their toll on her sanity. The mad scene, in which she appears in underwear and a tailcoat, covered in mud, is shattering.

Hamlet, Adelaide Festival, Brett DeanDouglas McNicol, Jud Arthur and Allan Clayton in Hamlet at the Adelaide Festival. Photo © Tony Lewis

There are also impressive performances from London-based Australian tenor Samuel Sakker as Laertes, Douglas McNicol as Horatio, Jud Arthur, tripling as the Ghost of Hamlet’s father, the Gravedigger and Player 1, Cheryl Barker as Gertrude, and Andrew Moran, Beau Sanford and Norbert Hohl as the other players, who are accompanied on stage by Scottish-born, Australian-based accordionist James Crabbe – an inspired touch.

The State Opera Chorus under Chorus Master Brett Weymark and The Song Company swell the vocal ranks and sing admirably. All up, an intense and intensely rewarding production.

Hamlet has performances at the Adelaide Festival on March 4 and 6.