The Metropolitan Opera – Brett Dean’s Hamlet – Allan Clayton, Brenda Rae, Sarah Connolly, John Relyea, Jacques Imbrailo; conducted by Nicholas Carter

Brett Dean
Hamlet – Opera in two Acts to a libretto by Matthew Jocelyn adapted from William Shakespeare’s play [sung in English, with Met titles in English, German, Spanish and Italian]

Hamlet – Allan Clayton
Gertrude – Sarah Connolly
Ophelia – Brenda Rae
Claudius – Rod Gilfry
Polonius – William Burden
Ghost of Old Hamlet / Gravedigger – John Relyea
Horatio – Jacques Imbrailo
Laertes – David Butt Philip
Rosencrantz – Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen
Guildenstern – Christopher Lowrey

The Metropolitan Opera Chorus
The Orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera
Nicholas Carter

Neil Armfield – Production
Ralph Myers – Scenic Designer
Alice Babidge – Costume Designer
Jon Clark – Lighting Designer
Denni Sayers – Movement Director
Nicholas Hall – Fight Director

5 of 5 stars

Reviewed by: Susan Stempleski

Reviewed: 13 May, 2022
Venue: Metropolitan Opera House, Lincoln Center, New York City

Brett Dean and Matthew Jocelyn’s operatic adaptation of Hamlet, which premiered at the 2017 Glyndebourne Festival, has arrived at the Met, and their daring reconfiguration of Shakespeare’s longest play is elegant and enthralling. Set to a highly complex and confident score, sung by a formidable cast, and brilliantly directed, Neil Armfield’s production is nothing less than riveting. 

Jocelyn’s libretto, a lean and lively refashioning of Shakespeare’s text, leaves plenty of room, as composer Dean has said, for the music to be the protagonist. And the distinctly dramatic score is weird and wonderful. With musicians positioned throughout the 3,800-seat theater, innovative sounds surround and constantly surprise the listener. In addition to those coming from the orchestra – which includes a battery of unorthodox percussion instruments such as sandpaper, aluminum foil, temple bells, newspaper, and a frying pan – an array of otherworldly effects is provided by an eight-member choir located in the pit, other singing groups in the balconies, amplified beeps and chattering noises that periodically pop up in different parts of the house, and two instrumental trios – each composed of a percussionist, clarinetist, and trumpeter – stationed in upper boxes on opposite sides of the proscenium. In the play-within-a-play sequence the woeful wheezes of an accordion (played by Veli Kujala) are a forlorn musical presence. Nicholas Carter demonstrates skillful command of the huge and varied musical ensemble.  

Armfield’s staging is tastefully simple. Ralph Myers’s designs consist of a sparsely furnished eighteenth-century ballroom at the start. As the story progresses, the walls fragment, blend, and rotate to reveal the theater’s backstage. A highpoint is the gravedigging scene, when a large platform depicting the gravesite eerily descends from above. 

Alice Babidge’s costumes consist largely of evening attire – the ladies in expensive-looking gowns, the men in finely tailored suits or classic black tie. Standing apart from this gussied up group is a slightly unkempt Hamlet, clad in a black T-shirt, jeans, and a pea coat. Armfield brings the action to life by efficiently moving the singers around the stage. The duel scene, staged by Denni Sayers in especially well-done.

The performers are all first-rate, with six reprising roles they played at Glyndebourne. A notable exception is John Relyea who is triple-cast as the ghost of Hamlet’s father, the gravedigger, and one of the traveling players. With his darkly hued, powerful bass-baritone, Relyea is superb in all his guises, nearly stealing the show as a creepy, bare-chested, bare-footed ghost, and delightfully witty as the wise-cracking gravedigger who digs up the skull of Yorick.

Also new to the production is Brenda Rae, who uses her extraordinary vocal technique and mesmerizing stage presence to create an endearingly fragile Ophelia. She has only a few eventful moments in Act One, but her extended ‘mad scene’ in Act Two is a highlight. Dressed in tattered underwear and a men’s tailcoat, her legs splattered with mud, her hands clutching a bunch of wilted flower branches, she enters the stage in a frenzy and galvanizes our attention with her radiant and expressive soprano.

Allan Clayton as Hamlet is a rumpled, melancholic presence throughout, on the road to madness from the start. A consummate actor and deeply sensitive singer, he completely immerses himself in the character of the tormented, ineffectual Danish prince. It takes a while for his agile, ardent tenor to fully open up against the First Act’s dense orchestration, but once it does, it floods the house. His most riveting moments are in the scene where he encounters his father’s ghost, and later when he learns of Ophelia’s death.

Sarah Connolly brings her assured mezzo-soprano to the role of Queen Gertrude. Her seeming innocence in the opening moments contrasts strongly with her assertiveness in the final scene when she cries out that she’s been poisoned. As her husband Claudius, Rod Gilfry, commanding in both voice and stature, delivers a straightforward portrayal of the duplicitous king. His aristocratic and confident manner is easily shaken, most visibly in his violent reaction to the play mimicking his murder of his brother, King Hamlet. His firm baritone is most effective in the confession scene which follows. 

In an opera replete with tenors, David Butt Philip’s moving portrayal of Laertes, Ophelia’s brother, makes a strong impression.  As her meddling father, Polonius, William Burden’s bright instrument successfully highlights the courtier’s comic traits. Baritone Jacques Imbrailo makes the most of the relatively small role of Horatio, Hamlet’s likeable and loyal friend. Countertenors

Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen and Christopher Lowrey portray Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as prissy and obsequious twins with unabated enthusiasm. The rest of the company, including the onstage chorus and the additional offstage voices, is skillful and strong.

Further performances on May 18, 21, 26 and 31; June 4 (matinee) and 9.The June 4 performance will be broadcast live beginning at 1pm Eastern Time via the Toll Brothers–Metropolitan Opera International Radio Network.

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