The Metropolitan Opera’s New Hamlet: “The play’s the thing…”

Rumbling sounds open this 2017 operatic adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet by composer Brett Dean and librettist Matthew Jocelyn, as we gaze on the title character, clad in black, casual clothing, holding on to his head. Soon, the celebration of his uncle and mother’s marriage will flood the stage with light. But in the meantime, it is the audience who is instantly flooded with ominous currents, in surround sound coming from inside the theatre. Brett Dean’s music, in all its eerie and roaring unpredictability, feels somewhat disjointed, perhaps fittingly so, since for Shakespeare’s Hamlet, time itself is “out of joint.” And so seems the keeping of time in Dean’s music, although to maintain its intricacy intact, its performance is very strategic and precise. 

However, the principal unsettling of cultural familiarity takes place at the core of the piece, inside its raison d’être: Shakespeare’s words and phrases. They are themselves “out of joint” while the known sequence of the plot’s events is sliced and placed in layers, one upon the other. Scenes that, in the play, follow a certain order, happen simultaneously here, and lines belonging to certain characters are sung or shared by others.

Allan Clayton in the title role of Brett Dean’s Hamlet – Photo: Karen Almond / Met Opera

By the first words that Hamlet utters, we realize that even the most basic knowledge of Shakespeare’s most-quoted play is about to be rattled. 

How so?

Librettist Matthew Jocelyn chooses the Danish prince’s opening words from the famous monologue “To be or not to be” that, in the play, happens in the first scene of Act 3. Yet, while placing this iconic phrase so early in the opera as a seal of instant connection to Shakespeare, Jocelyn instantly unsettles that connection by silencing “to be.” So, Hamlet begins the opera directly with “or not to be” and sings it obsessively as though it were impossible for him to even speak of being but would rather dwell on non-existence. Eventually, he does arrive at “to be” yet for him being or not-being is never “the question.” He sings: “to be… ay, there’s the point.” 

Which leads me to ask: what is indeed the point of this most recent treatment of a theatrical masterpiece that composers like Verdi, Bizet, Berlioz, Debussy, Mendelssohn, and Prokofiev, among others, shied away from setting to music? In current operatic repertoire, there remains the Ambroise Thomas treatment of 1868, albeit with a different ending, composed to a libretto by the famed duo Michel Carré and Jules Barbier based on an Alexandre Dumas père adaptation of the play. Thomas’ opera thus ensued from a French domino effect of adaptations triggered by an Ophelia craze in Paris that began in the early 19th century when famous actress Harriet Smithson made women and men cry at the Odéon by playing Hamlet’s tragic heroine. There is also the almost-forgotten 1865 Amleto by Franco Faccio with a libretto by Arrigo Boito, resurrected in 2014 in New Mexico at Albuquerque Journal Theatre. No surprise then that when Brett Dean’s version premiered at Glyndebourne in 2017, intense anticipation preceded it. Would this opera capture the complexity and challenges of the play? And will it endure? At the time, an article by Bill Barclay in The Guardian posed the question “where are all the operatic Hamlets?” and challenged readers: “There have been 40 operas based on Hamlet written since 1812 alone. How many of them can you name?” After leaving a blank expressionless space, he added: “Exactly.”

Although he initially rejected the idea of setting Hamlet to music, Dean created an opera unlike any other I have encountered. The music employs sound effects, the likes of which are heard in horror movie tension-building, using unconventional “instruments” like aluminum, paper, metal, roaring and electronic sounds, and whispers in the chorus that, at times, are reminiscent of the menacing chanting in The Omen or the urban coven of witches’ rituals in Rosemary’s Baby. Dean places not just instrumentalists but also chorus members in upper boxes on each side of the house. He uses an accordion player onstage who finely accompanies the gestures and movements of the actors Hamlet employs to put on the play-within-the-play to “catch the conscience of the king.” For a brief second, the accordion sound conjures up darkened taverns filled with tango dancers. A hint, perhaps, that the entire opera is an elusive dance between Dean, Jocelyn, and the audience, a dance that is so self-aware of its performance and shifts the sequences of steps in surprising and absurd ways? 

Brenda Rae as Ophelia and Allan Clayton in the title role of Brett Dean’s Hamlet – Photo: Karen Almond / Met Opera

Maybe the point of this opera is for the mind of the spectator to become jumbled and fragmented, like Hamlet’s mind, in a mosaic of indecision and distorted realities made of sonoral pieces that give glimpses into the familiar yet remain strange and ungraspable. I found that I clung to the text as to a compass leading me through the uncharted territories of Dean’s music. Ultimately, what this opera did for me was to propel me towards the play. It pushed me to plumb the depths of Shakespeare’s words, the layers of their meanings, and the structures of the phrases. It displayed the myriad of unexpected ways a composer can dress words in vibrations, stretching their meaning figuratively as well as literally through singers and orchestra in extreme, diverse displays of sounds. The opera plays with Hamlet’s original feigned insanity and makes us question whether it isn’t the insanity that is real while sanity becomes an act. The ambiguity and deconstruction of the familiar were further perpetuated by the nimble and intricate stage direction of Neil Armfield who mingled “theatrical” elements of traditional opera, modern opera, burlesque, and commedia dell’arte. Ralph Myers’ kaleidoscopic-like rotating and fragmenting ballroom and theatre set provided a crafty home for this dynamic mosaic.

Ambiguity radiated as well from the singers’ faces covered in white as though they were wearing a fake skin, which evoked Hamlet’s cruel line to Ophelia: “God hath given you one face, and you make yourselves another.” This choice of make-up seemed to declare most of the characters two-faced and to suggest that everyone—onstage and off—is an actor putting on a show. Which was supported by the changed placement of another famous line: “To thine own self be true.” Instead of addressing the phrase as advice to his son, Polonius utters it as he dies murdered by Hamlet. He follows it, significantly, with obsessive mutterings about the types of plays in existence at the time: combinations of “tragical, comical, historical, pastoral.” 

In such an altered context then, are we asked to interpret being “true” to ourselves as being good actors, experts in the various plays we enact in life? Or is this yet another instance of Dean and Jocelyn tangoing with our minds and reminding us that all we are seeing is simply make-believe? Call it operatic theatre or theatrical opera, I think this particular Hamlet, in the intellectual rather than emotional exercise it generates, demands a genre of its own. Like Hamlet’s lack of commitment until the end, Dean and Jocelyn’s opera shimmers in uncertainty and finds resolution when Hamlet, after having repeated “The rest is…” throughout the opera, is able to finish the sentence with “silence” when he dies. Here, the resolution is a textual rather than a musical one.

For tenor Allan Clayton who sang the title role, the evening was a remarkable tour de force. He is almost constantly on stage, unleashing his dazzling voice to its extremes, while always giving the impression that he can travel to even farther edges of vocal and theatrical “insanity.” His palette of vocal colors is astonishing; his voice can transmit desperation, sweetness, rage, and sarcasm in one musical swoop. It can slide purposefully between pitches producing sound effects that still emanate musicality. He jokes, he raves, he plays the rogue and the buffoon, he is fierce, hesitant, resigned, portraying each emotion physically and vocally, eating up the stage in his unbridled abundance of energy, all the while maintaining admirable diction—not an easy feat in operatic singing in English. His encounter with Ophelia in which he denies he ever sent her love letters and tells her “get thee to a nunnery” is one of the opera’s most hair-raising scenes: we literally see two forms of madness confronting each other while desperately struggling to conceal their thwarted mutual love.

Ophelia’s Mad Scene – David Butt Philip as Laertes and Brenda Rae as Ophelia in Brett Dean’s Hamlet – Photo: Karen Almond / Met Opera

As Ophelia, soprano Brenda Rae cuts a slender, swaying figure like a lone reed bending in the storms of rejection from Hamlet and manipulation from her father, Polonius. Tenor William Burden sings the role of Polonius in a clear-toned blend of courtly pompousness, insidiousness, and harshness towards his daughter. Hints of the madness that would overtake Ophelia appear from the start in her jittery gestures and vocal ornamentations typically associated with “mad scenes” in bel canto. Like Hamlet, she is prone to obsessive repetition of words, and keeps uttering “never, never, never” sometimes disquietingly doubled by chorus voices, quoting from Hamlet’s vows of love to her: “Never doubt I love.” Rae’s creamy soprano with its dramatically effective chest notes and unnerving vocal fireworks shooting into the stratosphere of the soprano voice create a fascinatingly unhinged Ophelia. Her voice travels from haunting, mellow, caressing vocal roundness to shrill sounds infused with despair and frenzy. Aside from the vocal acrobatics, Rae’s depiction of Ophelia’s mad scene is a feat of physical prowess. She appears scantily clad in underwear and a man’s tailcoat, with mud caked all over her body. She plucks at the weeds in her hands, she crawls backwards on the floor, she attacks King Claudius, and Queen Gertrude, putting obscene moves on them. She seems a beast breaking open the cage of her initial fragility, a far cry from the prototype of “femme fragile” that had started the Ophelia craze in Paris 200 years ago.

Rod Gilfry as Claudius in Brett Dean’s Hamlet – Photo: Karen Almond / Met Opera

Embodying Hamlet’s uncle, murderer of the prince’s father and usurper of the throne, baritone Rod Gilfry made for a stately and virile rather than cunning Claudius. Here it was difficult not be biased in favor of a wilier, more subtly insidious Claudius, having recently watched Derek Jacobi’s performance as one of the sliest, shrewdest Claudius-es ever, in Kenneth Branagh’s film version of Hamlet. At his side, Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude, was sung with gusto and luxuriant sound by mezzo-soprano Eve Gigliotti who replaced Sarah Connolly. Gigliotti proved a multifaceted, dramatically effective vocal presence all throughout, evolving from flirty, bubbly nonchalance and playfulness to darkened, subdued tones of regret and painful realization of her deeds. She was notably moving in her description of Ophelia’s death by drowning. 

Tenor David Butt Philip convincingly captured the essence of Ophelia’s hot-blooded brother, Laertes, while baritone David Adam Moore, replacing Jacques Imbrailo, brought honeyed, warm vocal beauty to the role of Hamlet’s faithful friend, Horatio. In a performance packed with replacements, the roles of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern offered the audience two Met debuts: countertenors Daniel Moody (Rosencrantz) and Eric Jurenas (Guildenstern) who deftly produced the twittering, ingratiating, parroting vocal expressions of the two, providing, along with Hamlet’s antics, some comic relief throughout. As the catalyst for Hamlet’s revenge, his father’s ghost emerged through the formidable presence and thunderous voice of bass-baritone John Relyea who dominated the stage in his otherworldly appearance and authoritarian yet mournful tones. Relyea displayed a broad dramatic range by playing two additional roles: the gravedigger and one of the actors of the theatre troupe. 

Allan Clayton as Hamlet and John Relyea as the Ghost in Brett Dean’s  Hamlet – Photo: Karen Almond / Met Opera

Jon Clark’s lighting design shifted flawlessly between atmospheres of brightness, uncanniness, impending doom, and walled-in sorrow. Alice Babidge’s beautiful, sleek costumes contributed to the mystery of the setting, hinting at a time period sometime in the mid-to-late 20th century. Last but not least, hats off to conductor Nicholas Carter, in his Met debut, for adroitly steering the orchestra, soloists, and chorus through this fierce, unpredictable, crushing, rousing, disconcerting, mind-blowing score.

All in all, Brett Dean and Matthew Jocelyn’s Hamlet is an operatic and theatrical trip that must be experienced in person. Some in the audience walked out during the performance while others roared in enthusiasm at the end. Words hardly do justice to the complexity of this experience. But does the opera, despite its textual deconstruction, do justice to Shakespeare’s words? I think the answer, just like the reaction to this opera, is very individual. In my case, the answer is yes, if only because the opera made me dig deeper into the meanings of those immortal words and love them even more.

Brett Dean’s Hamlet runs through June 9 at the Metropolitan Opera. Information and tickets.

Top photo: The play-within-the-play scene in Brett Dean’s Hamlet – Photo Credit: Karen Almond / Met Opera   

About Maria-Cristina Necula (139 Articles)
Maria-Cristina Necula’s published work includes the books "The Don Carlos Enigma: Variations of Historical Fictions" and "Life in Opera: Truth, Tempo and Soul," two translations: "Europe à la carte" and Molière’s "The School for Wives," and a new collection of poems, "Evanescent." Her articles and interviews have appeared in "Classical Singer" Magazine, "Opera America," "Das Opernglas," "Studies in European Cinema," and "Opera News." As a classically-trained singer she has performed in the New York City area at Weill Hall at Carnegie Hall, Merkin Hall, Florence Gould Hall, and the Westchester Broadway Theatre, and has presented on opera at The Graduate Center, Baruch, The City College of New York, and UCLA Southland. She speaks six languages, two of which she honed at the Sorbonne University in Paris and the University of Vienna, and she holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from The Graduate Center. Maria-Cristina is the recipient of a 2022 New York Press Club Award in the Critical Arts Review category for her review of Matthew Aucoin's "Eurydice" at the Metropolitan Opera, published on Woman Around Town. Discover more at www.mariacristinanecula.com.