An opera composer would need the epic gifts and epic gall of a Richard Wagner to consider an adaptation of “Hamlet” and think: “Yup, I’ve got this.”
“My initial response,” Brett Dean has ventured more modestly, “was to say no, that I couldn’t possibly tackle something that big.”
But about 10 years ago, Dean put aside his reservations and began to tackle the play, with Matthew Jocelyn by his side as librettist. And, boldly slashing and reconfiguring Shakespeare’s text while setting it to a score assured in both crashes and whispers, they tackled it to the ground.
Now at the Metropolitan Opera, Dean and Jocelyn’s “Hamlet” is brooding, moving and riveting. These two artists have put a softly steaming small choir in the orchestra pit, and musicians in balcony boxes for fractured fanfares. And, through acoustic means and groaning subwoofers alike, they have put the agonized characters nearly inside your bloodstream.
It’s a work both traditional and innovative, elegant and passionate – a hit, to quote the play badly out of context, a very palpable hit.
“Hamlet” was already admirable in the 1,200-seat, jewel-box theater at the Glyndebourne Festival in England. It premiered there in 2017, just 50 miles from the Globe in London, where the original play was performed some 400 years ago. When a work succeeds in such an intimate space, there’s no guarantee that it will have the same impact in the nearly 4,000-seat Met.
But “Hamlet” doesn’t merely fill the Met. It engulfs the enormous house. This transfer is no compromise or pale echo; when it opened on Friday, the two-act opera felt more powerful and coherent than it did five years ago.
At Glyndebourne, the piece made a coolly virtuosic impression, coming off more as a clever meditation on the play than as a deep or affecting inhabiting of it. But it was dazzling musically, and no less so at the Met. From its first sepulchral rumble in the dark to the lonely ending – papery wrinkles of snare drum; a cello solo high and yearning enough to mimic a viola; quietly breathless winds – Dean’s score contains multitudes and mysteries.
As the story progresses, there are violent explosions and simmering fogs of sound, out of which the voices emerge, emoting at their extremes but ineffably human, too. Electronic auras seem to swirl around the audience, aided by the two antiphonal groups in the balcony boxes on either side of the proscenium – each with a percussionist, clarinetist and trumpeter.
Those percussionists are abetted by three more in the pit, handling an army of instruments usual and not, including temple bells, junk metal, glass and plastic bottles, aluminum foil, newspaper, and a drum called, aptly, a lion’s roar. This is an opera that blasts and scrapes, flickers and droops, with growling aggression giving way to delicate twinkling.
Conducted by Nicholas Carter, in his company debut, the Met’s ensemble was as focused and rich on Friday as the London Philharmonic Orchestra had been at Glyndebourne.
But whether it was a change in my perception or the grander new surroundings, or both, the union of Dean’s score and Jocelyn’s libretto – a spirited yet deadly serious mash-up of the play’s different versions – now felt more convincing. The opera seems to have grown into itself. Without losing its patient, ritualistic grimness or its games with theatricality, it has stronger narrative propulsion. What seemed episodic in 2017 now comes across as a taut dramatic arc, the text sometimes stylized – characters tend to stammer repetitions of key lines – but the storytelling clear, lean and always supported by the agile music.
A crucial factor in that clarity is Neil Armfield’s savage, exhilarating production, which originated at Glyndebourne but has effortlessly scaled up for the Met; bigger, in this case, really is better. The singers’ faces are caked in floury white, like Kabuki actors rushed into service before being fully prepared. Alice Babidge’s aristocratic costumes float ambiguously between our time and the 1960s, and Ralph Myers’s set – lit by Jon Clark with flooding daylight and mournful sunset – is a manor-house ballroom that fragments and rotates to become a theater’s backstage. These characters, we are not allowed to forget, are performers, too – but that bit of detachment only redoubles the poignancy of their struggles.
Making his Met debut in the title role, the tenor Allan Clayton is the same disheveled, melancholy presence he was in England. Barely leaving the stage during the performance, he is covered in sweat by the end. But the strains the score forces toward the edges of his range feel more intentional now, even beautiful; his tone is sometimes plangently lyrical, sometimes sarcastically sharp. Without losing the character’s desperation, Clayton now makes Hamlet more persuasively antic and wry – more real.
Depicting the ghost of Hamlet’s father – a ferocious, ecstatic invention, sung by the stony-toned bass-baritone John Relyea – Dean is not above creepy, effective horror-movie effects. The baritone Rod Gilfry and the mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly conjure the luxuriant sternness of Claudius (Hamlet’s uncle and his father’s killer) and Gertrude (his mother and, fatally, Claudius’s new wife).
Dean and Jocelyn give us an Ophelia more forthright and forceful than fragile flower, but that unseen choral haze from the pit hovers around the poised, subtle soprano Brenda Rae from the beginning, a premonition of insanity. When she testifies in front of Claudius and Gertrude about Hamlet’s odd behavior, we don’t just hear the bronzed resonance of a temple bowl; we somehow feel ourselves inside its claustrophobic metallic emptiness, too.
Ophelia’s mad scene, with Rae in mud-soiled underwear, matted hair and a men’s tailcoat, pounding on her chest as she sings to make the notes tremble, is eerie without overstatement. As her avenging brother, Laertes, the tenor David Butt Philip is ardent; as her officious father, Polonius, the tenor William Burden avoids caricature. The whole vast company is strong, including the onstage chorus, an implacably unified mob of nobility at fever pitch.
Though cutely portrayed as toadyish countertenor twins by Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen and Christopher Lowrey, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern struggle to serve much musical or dramatic purpose. (They were trimmed for Ambroise Thomas’s French “Hamlet” of 1868, the only other operatic version still in wide circulation.) But so sure is Dean’s imagination and execution that you accept as part of his theatrical world even the elements that you might not have chosen for yours.
And so many of his ideas are inspired, like adding the forlorn country lilt of an accordionist (Veli Kujala) to the scene in which Hamlet corrals a traveling troupe of actors to put on an evocation of his father’s murder. Later, the whistling of the gravedigger (Relyea, who also sings the chief of the players’ troupe) passes with miraculous restraint into the orchestra, until the solemnity of the ensemble is cut through with sardonic grunts of brass and more windy wheezes of accordion.
This is a long score – two hours and 45 minutes of music – and its pace conspicuously slows during a blood bath finale that unfolds with painstaking, even painful, deliberation. But to live within such a confident vision as Dean and Jocelyn’s, and to feel it live around and in you, is the pleasure afforded by great art. Who would want that to end any sooner?
Through June 9 at the Metropolitan Opera, Manhattan; metopera.org.