Hamlet returned to the Met after a 12 year absence. This time, however, it was not the 19th century French forgettable by Ambroise Thomas, but the 2017 opera by Brett Dean. The reason for the 2010 revival, which was the return of an opera not mounted by the company since 1895, was the the impersonation of the moody Dane by Simon Keenlyside. The British baritone’s performance was revelatory. He was far better than the opera. He dominated the stage like Hannibal at Cannae.

The reason for staging Dean’s version is not clear to me. He and librettist Matthew Jocelyn have made a work that seems more like a play with music than an opera. Though the work is very long, it still left out a lot of Shakespeare’s longest play. It relied on the valid assumption that most of its audience was familiar with the story. Much has been made of tenor Allan Clayton’s performance in the title role. But if your idea of Hamlet is not one of an overweight, balding, middle aged man cavorting across the stage like a teenager with ADHD off his meds then you’ll be disappointed. Clayton sang the role with verve and skill, though sang is not the right verb for what came from the performers. Recitation was closer to what came out of their mouths rather than singing.

The writing for orchestra made use of two instrumental groups outside of the pit and a collection of noise makers including plastic bottles, sandpaper, aluminum foil, a frying pan, and a group of eight singers placed in the pit in addition to the usual complement of players. Nicholas Carter conducted with elan, though the score sounded like countless others written over the past 50 years. If a computer had been charged with the task of writing modern music for an opera based on Hamlet the result would have been hard to distinguish from Dean’s product.

The performers were all very good considering the din they had to contend with. Soprano Brenda Rae had a mad scene clad in her underwear. She did have a coat to intermittently cover her mud besmirched body. She carried a handful of plants that magically appeared in the midst of a Danish winter. The physical part of her depiction of lunacy was so impressive that the viewer might imagine that the muck covering her body came from a mud wrestling bout held just minutes earlier.

Sarah Connolly was age appropriate as the remarried too soon mother of Hamlet. She was seemingly innocent of her husband’s bad deeds. Alas, the great scene during which Hamlet confronts her about her incestuous, at least to him, marriage to his uncle lacked the raw power that it has in the play – one of the theater’s most compelling depictions.

Rod Gilfry was a little bland as the murderous usurper, Claudius. Vocally he was fine or at least as fine as the music would allow. David Butt Philip was assertive as Laertes whose family is destroyed by Hamlet. John Relyea played three roles. The ghost, The gravedigger, and the leader of the travelling actors. His bare chested ghost was sung with a booming and sepulchral bass. Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen and Christopher Lowrey, both countertenors, were mostly innocuous as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. They hung around until the end of the show when they died amid the general carnage that concludes the opera rather than expiring offstage. The opera ends with Hamlet’s death. There’s no Fortinbras or English ambassador.

Veteran William Burden was Polonius. He was less pompous than the usual portrayal of the cliché spouting advisor. Jacques Imbrailo was suitably supportive as Hamlet best friend Horatio.

The production was mostly unobtrusive except for the whiteface that everyone wore. The purpose of all this farinaceous makeup was unclear. The costumes suggested a mid twentieth time period, though the obligatory chronology change was not distracting. The sets were mostly panels that moved easily as one scene shifted to the next. The only exception was the gravedigger’s scene which descended from the rafters and then went back up after Ophelia was laid to rest. Gary Halvorson’s cameras were in too close too often.

My take on Dean’s opera after a single outing was that it showed a lot of technical skill and was artfully constructed, but that it had no emotional content. I can’t imagine listening to it without any visual component. All great operas, and good ones as well, can be listened to by themselves. This characteristic is what defines a fine opera. There are very few written after the death of Strauss that can meet this criterion. My guess is that this version of Hamlet will not meet the admittedly low standard set by Thomas’s version. Would I advise going to the replay if you missed today’s live performance? Only if you have to see everything the Met offers.

Metropolitan Opera
June 4, 2022

HAMLET {5}
Brett Dean – Matthew Jocelyn

Hamlet………………Allan Clayton
Claudius…………….Rod Gilfry
Laertes……………..David Butt Philip
Ophelia……………..Brenda Rae
Polonius…………….William Burden
Horatio……………..Jacques Imbrailo
Marcellus……………Justin Austin
Gertrude…………….Sarah Connolly
Ghost……………….John Relyea
Rosencrantz………….Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen
Guildenstern………….Christopher Lowrey
Player………………John Relyea
Player………………Manase Latu
Player………………Chad Shelton
Player………………Justin Austin
Gravedigger………….John Relyea
Offstage voice……….Monica Dewey
Offstage voice……….Chanáe Curtis
Offstage voice……….Tesia Kwarteng
Offstage voice……….Megan Moore
Offstage voice……….John Matthew Myers
Offstage voice……….Christian Mark Gibbs
Offstage voice……….Benjamin Sieverding
Offstage voice……….Wm. Clay Thompson
Accordian……………Veli Kujala

Conductor……………Nicholas Carter

Production…………..Neil Armfield
Set Designer…………Ralph Myers
Costume Designer……..Alice Babidge
Lighting Designer…….Jon Clark
Movement Director…….Denni Sayers
Video Director……….Gary Halvorson