Brett Dean’s opera Hamlet, premiered in 2017 at Glyndebourne Festival Opera, is being given its North American premiere at the Metropolitan Opera. I caught the second performance of the run. 

Jacques Imbrailo (Horatio) and Allan Clayton (Hamlet)
© Karen Almond | Met Opera

The score is modernist, but not in an off-putting “who cares if you listen” way. The orchestra incorporates some electronic sounds, and bridges the sonic gap with bowed percussion and other eerie non-traditional sounds, including a pit chorus and found-object percussion. There are two instrumental trios positioned in the side boxes of the auditorium, surprisingly effective in creating a surround-sound experience. While this sort of sonic mélange is not unfamiliar from film scores, it’s unusual to hear it done at such a scale in a live performance. The orchestral music is tense and exciting under Nicholas Carter’s baton, reflecting the emotional turbulence onstage in a propulsive, effervescent stream with only occasional reflective pauses. While there isn’t much for the melodically-inclined opera lover to grab onto, there is structural and dramatic use of recognizable figures that anchors the listener. One example is a detuned descending chromatic line that first appears when Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are introduced; it appears in the same instrumentation several times before it is given to the offstage chorus to comment, hair-raisingly, on Ophelia’s funeral.

Brenda Rae (Ophelia) and Allan Clayton (Hamlet)
© Karen Almond | Met Opera

Dean, librettist Matthew Jocelyn and director Neil Armfield aim to take us inside Hamlet’s mind, signaled by the repeated fragments of text as the lights gradually brighten from nothing: “…or not to be,” and “returneth to dust”. Or at least that’s the stated intent. While this adaptation does often give the impression of projecting Hamlet’s inner life, it is still a linear presentation of the story, and eventually is overtaken by the need to deliver the plot. As a result, the pacing, while always engaging, sometimes lurches. Hamlet’s scenes with Ophelia, Claudius and Gertrude, the highly effective emotional centerpieces of the score, are given possibly too-luxurious expanses of time, while Laertes and Claudius’ plotting to kill Hamlet goes by in a rushed recitative.

John Relyea (Ghost of Hamlet's father) and Allan Clayton (Hamlet)
© Karen Almond | Met Opera

The performances are universally outstanding. Tenor Allan Clayton was a revelation as Hamlet. Not only is his singing supple and beautifully unrestricted, he has an easy, natural physicality that is extremely rare among opera singers, and which the production takes full advantage of. As Ophelia, soprano Brenda Rae delivered nicely in her mad aria, but to me was especially moving in the earlier scenes. The wrenching vulnerability of her line to Hamlet, “You made me believe you did [love me]”, is one of the most indelible moments of the opera. Bass-baritone John Relyea was marvelous in the triple role of The Ghost/First Player/Gravedigger, projecting unnerving spookiness, cheerful insouciance and low comedy with equal aplomb.

William Burden (Polonius) and Brenda Rae (Ophelia)
© Karen Almond | Met Opera

Also worthy of mention are tenor William Burden as Polonius and mezzo-soprano Eve Gigliotti, substituting for Sarah Connolly as Gertrude, both in fine voice and finding unexpected pathos in their roles. Countertenors Daniel Moody and Eric Jurenas, making their Met debuts as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, were a delightful presence, although they were sometimes covered by the orchestra in their lower registers. And a tip of the hat to onstage accordionist Veli Kujala for a standout cameo in Hamlet’s scene with the Players.

Scene from Brett Dean's Hamlet
© Jonathan Tichler |Halm Met Opera

The physical production, set in some unspecified amalgamation of the 18th and 20th centuries, has some lovely, effective moments, as when Ralph Myers’ set rearranges itself to set a new scene. Jon Clark’s lighting design seems occasionally overwrought to me, duplicating the effects of the score rather than supplementing them. Alice Babidge’s costume design, mostly subtle and serviceable, has one notable misfire: the Players’ dumbshow, staged with Claudius, Gertrude and their court behind it, is difficult to see because the Players’ costumes do not contrast with those of the chorus.

The Met Chorus, as always, was outstanding, although Dean’s writing for them is probably the weakest aspect of the score; the most memorable choral moment was a collection of groaning glissandos in the final swordfight-and-poisoning scene. Choral and costume quibbles notwithstanding, this opera is a worthy addition to the canon, and this production is a treat. Clayton alone is worth the trip.