At the Metropolitan Opera, Hamlet is playing—not the Hamlet of Ambroise Thomas, the nineteenth-century French composer. (This is probably the best-known Hamlet in opera.) Not the Hamlet of Franco Faccio, a nineteenth-century Italian composer. (That opera boasts a libretto by Boito, and is called Amleto.) No, this one is by Brett Dean, and it premiered in 2017.
Dean is an Australian composer, born in 1961. For about 15 years—1984 to 2000—he played the viola in the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. Then he embarked on a composing career. Who had the task of fashioning a libretto for this Hamlet? Matthew Jocelyn, a Canadian. He has done a fine job of wrestling that baby, or that monster, or that masterpiece, down.
The opera’s Hamlet walks around, dazed, muttering “or not to be”; “or not to be.”
I enjoyed hearing the opera in the language of the play. Verdi loved Shakespeare, mightily. It occurred to me: I have seen his Otello many, many more times than I have seen the play, Othello. I have seen his Macbeth more than I have seen the play. And I have seen his Falstaff many, many more times than I have seen any of the plays in which Sir John Falstaff appears: The Merry Wives of Windsor; Henry IV, Part I; and Henry IV, Part II.
It is almost the case that, when I hear Shakespeare, I hear Italian.
Dean’s score, right from the beginning, is spooky, dark, scary. The anxiety barely ceases. Many times over the years, I have called the present age in composition “an age of anxiety.” This score illustrates the point perfectly. Of course, Shakespeare’s play is anxious, too. It would be hard, and odd, to write a relaxed Hamlet. Dean’s score exists in a psychological realm, a realm shot through with madness.
Personally, I desired a little relief—more relief than one gets, from the madness, and anxiety, and horror. A little more relief might make the madness more effective. Madness, like other tones or modes, can be monotonous.
Yet that Dean is effective cannot be denied. Ophelia’s mad scene is especially well constructed. I thought, “It makes Lucia’s [in the Donizetti opera Lucia di Lammermoor] look like a pleasant picnic on a Sunday afternoon.”
The score intends to be hypnotic, I gather, and the Met’s program booklet calls this opera “a thoroughly riveting dramatic experience.” Whether audience members are riveted depends on them, I think. I am often in a position of envying those who are rapt.
This Hamlet has a brilliant production, overseen by another Aussie, Neil Armfield. I want to say that the production is “Hitchcockian,” but perhaps that word is lazy, or clichéd. Suffice it to say that the production is imaginative, sharp, and suspenseful.
The opera received a performance at the Met last Wednesday night that was very strong. In the title role was Allan Clayton, a British tenor. He gave a tour de force. Now, is it easy—relatively easy—to give a tour de force in this role? Yes, I would say so. Nonetheless, Mr. Clayton did.
Playing Claudius, in tuxedo and crown, was Rod Gilfry, the American baritone. I swear, he looks the same as he looked in about 1990. In this opera, he was every inch a king—a usurping, nervous king. His hasty bride, Gertrude, was Eve Gigliotti, an American mezzo previously heard at the Met this season in Boris Godunov. In both operas, she was assured, musically and theatrically. She owns a big, juicy instrument.
The American tenor William Burden was smooth, very smooth, as Polonius. And an American soprano, Brenda Rae, took full advantage of the role of Ophelia. This role offers a lot to a soprano. Ms. Rae exploited her part without overdoing anything. Rarely is Ophelia more pitiable, in my experience.
John Relyea, the Canadian bass-baritone, sang the Ghost. And the First Player. And the Gravedigger. In The Tales of Hoffmann, Relyea has Four Villains, and in Dean’s Hamlet just three roles—but he sang and acted them all in nearly showstopping, or scene-stealing, style.
Not to be forgotten is the conductor, who handled a tricky score neatly and alertly. He is Nicholas Carter, yet another Aussie. He was a very smart cuer (cue-giver). And that he has a sense of pace was clear. The Met orchestra was equal to any challenge the score could present (as virtually goes without saying, given the quality of the orchestra).
As I sat there on Wednesday night, I thought of an opera by Thomas Adès: The Exterminating Angel, his surrealistic work of 2016. It is very dark, very screwy. Let me quote a review I wrote from the Salzburg Festival:
Speaking for myself, I would pay good money not to see this opera again. I liked it as much as nightmares. But I recognize its brilliance—and the general brilliance of its composer. Adès can be counted on to write interesting and skillful music, whether it’s for you or me or not.
Would I pay good money not to see Dean’s Hamlet again? I would not go that far. I can tell you, however, that this opera is incredibly disturbing—and meant to be, of course. Like the Adès opera I have mentioned, it is brilliant, or contains brilliance. Will it be staged fifty years from now? Seventy-five? I would not bet on it. But I would not bet all that much against it. Not that much at all.