Brett Dean’s Hamlet at the Met

On the Met stage, Brett Dean’s Hamlet.
Photo: Karen Almond/Met Opera

From the first volcanic rumble seeping out of the walls in Brett Dean’s opera hamletwe know that we are at the bottom of a very deep chasm: the psyche of the protagonist. The score sheds a flashing light on his inner world, a dark and rugged terrain of subterranean swamps and craggy ridges. Percussion jingles and whispers from high ledges. Sweeps of choral singing emerge from invisible niches. A contrabass clarinet growls in the ditch. Electronic sounds waft through the house. And practically always present on stage is the Dane himself, stumbling through this projection of his tormented mind. Whether or not you enjoy following it on this trek depends on your preference for the dark and how long you are willing to linger there.

hamlet is the second new (similar) opera to be seen at the Met this season, and like that of Terence Blanchard Fire shut up in my bones, it’s a tour de force of suicidal desperation. There are also other resonances with the company’s current season: a flibbertigibbety insane scene (as in Lucia of Lammermoor), a powerful prince versus king confrontation (as in Don Carlos), a grown child who rages over a father’s murder and a mother’s quick remarriage (Electra). But in his musical exploration of a shattered spirit, Dean’s score belongs to a flamboyant mid-20th-century theatrical language that never found much traction at the Met. Peter Maxwell Davies Eight songs for a mad king and Le Grand Macabre by György Ligeti, both masterful illustrations of the Berserker.

Dean’s music is often brilliant and never less than adept. He digs clarity out of the chaos in Duel, an extended ensemble scene in which rays of overlapping violence, hatred and vengeance dart in all directions across the stage. So does director Neil Armfield, who masterfully pulls off the interplay of swordplay and singing, and conductor Nicholas Carter, who holds the sparkling, roaring machinery of a score together with impeccable finesse. And yet it is confusing to read the composer’s claim that he wanted his version of the character to gradually unravel. “It was important for us to show what a vital, witty banger of a young man he is,” says Dean in the program notes, “because that’s what makes his eventual demise so heartbreaking.” That’s not the arc the opera follows or which the score actually depicts. There is no carefree before, only an elaborate infernal present.

As Dean points out, Shakespeare spices misery with humor, but that’s a difficult trick in opera, where comedy is usually best kept broad. Subtle puns can’t reliably make their way through a rowdy orchestra. The timing is bound to be inflexible, and a skeptical murmur or raised eyebrow doesn’t help at all. Here, the graveyard scene – in which bass-baritone John Relyea, having switched roles from ghost to gravedigger, stands in an open pit and digs his voice deeper into the grave – moves too slowly to be comical. Instead, Dean relies on Rosencrantz and Guildenstern for a smile, turning them into a chirping pair of countertenors and letting a muted trumpet croak sarcastically at their banter. These amusing interludes do little to lighten the mood.

It doesn’t help that Shakespeare’s speech is shredded on the way to the opera stage. Librettist Matthew Jocelyn discarded most of the text as he had to, or the opera’s span would have been measured in days. Dean adapted the remaining lines to his gymnastic music in such a way that the ear does not catch more than two or three scurrying syllables in a row over long stretches. The experience is less like watching a play you remember and more like overhearing a conversation in a language you only dimly understand. This is true of many other operas – the incomprehensibility of the text is part of the art form, as is the extreme blackening. That’s what surtitles are for. But things move so fast here that I found my eyes darting between the seatback screen and the stage, as if sympathizing with the changing moods of the characters. In this show, the audience stays alert or is left behind.

Perhaps the words ring clearer in a less cavernous auditorium— hamlet premiered in the more compact Glyndebourne house in 2017 – but the score and Armfield’s staging are spacious. Hamlet’s mind is a crowded place: shocks come in thousands and troubles in a sea. And when the last bloodshed is done, Horatio knows that it takes not one, but several swarms of angels to bring peace to even the dead. Dean has the physical resources to make these imaginary crowds literal. His orchestra pours out of the moat, creating sounds that bang against the Met’s vast vaulted ceiling. One has the feeling that if he had not composed the piece for an opera house but for a football stadium, he would have added even more sound cannon.

hamlet is a play about doubt – not only about the trembling of the title character, but also about the difficulty of distinguishing fact from fantasy, madness from eccentricity, traitor from friend. Even death may not be quite absolute, that undiscovered land from which a ghost might sneak back across the border. But Dean has created work that imposes and demands precision and control. We may not be sure where a sound is coming from or what created it, but the effect is to channel the psychic flow of the drama second by second. The vocal writing is meticulously expressive. The characters whisper, whine, roar, grin and rage, all in written-out jumps and jags. We view this panorama through Hamlet’s jaundiced lens, but it’s Ophelia who howls and growls through her mad scene, leading the way to psychosis in Brenda Rae’s violent but calculated interpretation. The production stays true to that sense of strategic madness: Ralph Myers’ sets consist of a troupe of reversible panels that whiz across the stage in tightly timed choreography.

There’s a price for all that glare. As effective as each moment is often, I found the score’s offbeat mood tiring. Its constant, high-octane insistence on overwhelming audiences delivers diminishing returns, and tragedy flirts with boredom. Hamlet’s grievances and his smug expression of them begin to feed on themselves. The framing offers little relief. Tenor Allan Clayton has a particularly late night in the title role, and he dishes out emotion, sinking his voice to a sweet croon in his “To Be or Not to Be” aria and driving it to the croon when his blood is pumping Extreme brink of disruption. But over the course of three searing hours, we come to know this Hamlet not as a quicksilver character with quick wits and deep poetry, but as another off-kilter, vindictive howler of the kind that has hijacked public life.

hamlet can be seen at the Metropolitan Opera until June 9th. Brett Dean’s Hamlet at the Met

Lindsay Lowe

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