Brett Dean’s Hamlet was deemed a palpable hit at Glyndebourne this season – an event I contrived to miss, making me double my resolve to catch it this autumn as it joins the tour. A restless score, a stylish modern setting and gripping central performances from David Butt Philip (trading Laertes at the festival for the title role here) and Jennifer France (Ophelia) do much to commend this new work, although structurally there are flaws and the libretto at times feels deliberately dislocated.

David Butt Philip (Hamlet) © Richard Hubert Smith
David Butt Philip (Hamlet)
© Richard Hubert Smith

Operatic Shakespeare in English is at a disadvantage in this country. Setting the Bard in Italian or French provides linguistic distance, allowing us to forgive awkward lines or savage cuts. Yet Arrigo Boito famously captured the poetry of the originals in his Otello and Falstaff librettos for Verdi. Years earlier, he’d done the same for Franco Faccio with Amleto, expertly filleting Shakespeare’s longest play for a masterly libretto. Matthew Jocelyn’s filleting for Brett Dean bowls the audience a few googlies, taking famous quotes, chopping them up and sometimes assigning them to other characters or placing them in different contexts – the operatic equivalent of fridge magnet poetry. “Or not to be” are the first solo words, as if Hamlet enters mid-soliloquy, while “The rest is silence” is oft-quoted but denied its final word until the end. In a mesmerising touch, “There is a willow grows askant [the libretto’s twist] a brook” puts Ophelia’s words into Gertrude’s mouth, only to be taken over by the spirit of the dead Ophelia from off-stage. It certainly keeps you on your toes.

Neil Armfield’s staging, revived by Lloyd Wood, begins in a banqueting hall with freeze frames to isolate characters being introduced. Ivory-coloured walls elegantly segue into different formation to aid swift scene changes. The play within the play is effective.

Gavan Ring (Horatio), Brian Bannatyne-Scott (Gravedigger) and David Butt Philip (Hamlet) © Richard Hubert Smith
Gavan Ring (Horatio), Brian Bannatyne-Scott (Gravedigger) and David Butt Philip (Hamlet)
© Richard Hubert Smith

Dean’s score is artfully constructed, busy with electronics and effects, dispersing musicians around the house for true surround sound. Spooky percussion and orchestral members muttering and whispering contribute to a ghostly Elsinore under Duncan Ward’s watchful direction. A wheezy accordion accompanies the players like a Baroque continuo. Dean’s writing is voice-friendly, although few of the vocal lines are memorable on first hearing. Act 1 suffers from being overlong, but after the interval things cohere more, starting with a virtuosic coloratura mad scene for Ophelia, wry humour in the Gravedigger’s scene and a fabulous sword fight leading to the finale’s bloodbath.

A problem I detect is that, even though I didn’t see it at the festival, the fingerprints of the original cast are everywhere. For example, the booming Brian Bannatyne-Scott seemed to be summoning up the spectre of John Tomlinson as much as the Ghost of Old Hamlet and Dean’s writing for Ophelia is so specifically full of ‘Hanniganisms’ that, despite Jennifer France sounding stunning, it’s impossible not to hear Barbara Hannigan when she sings. Aye, there’s the rub.

Jennifer France (Ophelia) © Richard Hubert Smith
Jennifer France (Ophelia)
© Richard Hubert Smith

Hamlet is clearly in the midst of a mental breakdown right from the start and David Butt Philip charted the descent from sardonic heir to clown prince mesmerically, his tenor ringing out heroically at the line “I loved Ophelia!”. France commanded the stage in Ophelia’s mud-spattered mad scene, which transforms to a haunting close harmony quartet when joined by mezzo Louise Winter’s Gertrude and countertenor Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, elsewhere deployed for misfiring comic effect as the preening courtiers. One of Dean’s better musical jokes comes when Jeffrey Lloyd Roberts’ bumbling Polonius ornaments his line “I will be brief.” Gavan Ring was a sympathetic Horatio, cradling the dying Hamlet, while Rupert Charlesworth was splendid as the grief-ridden Laertes. William Dazeley’s Claudius was powerful in his confession, although he and Winter could have been firmer in maintaining their vocal lines.

If “the play’s the thing”, Dean’s operatic Hamlet still has much to offer.