Brett Dean's operatic adaptation of Shakespeare's Hamlet was introduced at the 2017 Glyndebourne Festival and was subsequently taken on the Glyndebourne Tour as well as travelling to the Adelaide Festival. Now it has received its first new production since that premiere staging with the opera's first appearance in Germany, at the increasingly drawn-out temporary home of Oper Köln, the Staatenhaus. One would expect contemporary work to come off best in this adapted exhibition hall, but there were acoustical compromises even here, with the low ceiling rather amplifying the aural effect and not always allowing the score's spatial elements to tell, at least from the front rows of seats. It meant that in the earlier stages, at least, the singers weren't consistently able to project the text across Dean's wall of orchestral and electronic sound.

Dino Lüthy (Laertes) and David Butt Philip (Hamlet) © Paul Leclaire
Dino Lüthy (Laertes) and David Butt Philip (Hamlet)
© Paul Leclaire

The text itself, Matthew Jocelyn's strangely effective cut-and-paste job on Shakespeare's original, gains a musical form of its own in Dean's setting, with lines repeated and recalled like recurring melodic motifs: Hamlet's “or not to be”, and Ophelia's “never, never, never”, for instance. Jocelyn, whose day job is as a theatre director and administrator, has this time taken on the production side himself, and in a sparer but more emotionally engaged staging, perhaps, than Neil Armfield's Glyndebourne production, probes deeply into the work's ideas.

From the very start, with the Gravedigger seen at work even while the audience is still assembling, Jocelyn seems to be forewarning us of the drama's bloody end and that death hangs over the whole Danish court from start to finish. The ghost of Hamlet's father punts himself in on a canal of water as if on the Styx, the same body of water in which Ophelia is later assumed to have drowned and, drained, the passage down which almost the entire cast slowly traipse as their mortal coils are shuffled off in the final scene. Alain Lagarde's simple but effective set, with a kind of battlement encasing a central doorway and a stage floor replete with openings for graves, waterways and more, has the flexibility for the various changes of milieu and with Christian Pinaud's lighting, along with ample dry ice, creates plenty of atmosphere.

Gloria Rehm (Ophelia) and John Heuzenroeder (Polonius) © Paul Leclaire
Gloria Rehm (Ophelia) and John Heuzenroeder (Polonius)
© Paul Leclaire

The Glyndebourne Festival premiere was so distinctively cast that even the differently peopled touring version struggled to free itself from associations with particular singers in key roles. In Cologne, though, that is not generally an issue, though David Butt Philip in the title role sang Laertes at Glyndebourne and then took the lead on the tour. That assumption was very much based around Allan Clayton's manic creation of the title role. This time, however, Butt Philip has had the chance to develop more of his own response to the character, a portrayal that seems less focused on Hamlet's indecisiveness or even madness than on his vengeful zeal, and is sung with unremitting intensity while never losing tonal refinement.

Joshua Bloom (Ghost of Old Hamlet) and David Butt Philip (Hamlet) © Paul Leclaire
Joshua Bloom (Ghost of Old Hamlet) and David Butt Philip (Hamlet)
© Paul Leclaire

Gloria Rehm, taking on a role created for Barbara Hannigan's vocal acrobatics, was an engagingly sympathetic Ophelia, especially in her searing mad scene. Andrew Schroeder's tone as Claudius was a little opaque, but Dalia Schaechter's haughty Gertrude, if sometimes a little tremulous, brought shades of both Strauss' Herodias and Klytemnestra to her portrayal. John Heuzenroeder, with his especially clear tenor, made much of Polonius' pomposity, Wolfgang Stefan Schwaiger was a sympathetic Horatio, especially affecting in his final cradling of the dying prince, and Dino Lüthy sang Laertes with much vigour. With a voice as deep and dark as the grave he was digging, Joshua Bloom was a sonorous Gravedigger/Ghost/Player, and countertenors Patrick Terry and Cameron Shahbazi had much fun with their Rosencrantz and Guildenstern double act – the Ant and Dec of this Hamlet where no one seems to remember which one is which.

Dalia Schaechter (Gertrude), James Crabb, Andrew Schroeder (Claudius), David Butt Philip and cast © Paul Leclaire
Dalia Schaechter (Gertrude), James Crabb, Andrew Schroeder (Claudius), David Butt Philip and cast
© Paul Leclaire

Duncan Ward conducted Hamlet on the Glyndebourne Tour and here marshalled his scattered forces with great aplomb. The main body of the Gürzenich Orchestra, ranked in massed tiers along a side aisle to the stage, made an often overwhelming sound, but the score does have its more transparent sections, no more so than when accordionist James Crabb, another veteran of Glyndebourne's production, provided an atmospheric, ironic obbligato to the troupe of players. The focused singing of the Chorus of Oper Köln and the vocal group Rheinstimmen Ensemble completed the impressive line-up for this powerful evening of music theatre.


****1