How many good operas based on Shakespeare plays are there? No need to rack your brains. There are very few, perhaps as few as the hugely successful ones: Verdi’s trio of Macbeth, Otello, Falstaff.
Just look at those three and see how Verdi had to excise big chunks of Shakespearean blank verse in order to tell in music the core story of each of those plays and keep the attention of his 19th century audiences from dissipating.
Macbeth’s rise to power is clearly at the center of Verdi’s opera. The witches are there, but neither the drunken porter nor the children nor their murderers are left. In Verdi’s Otello we lose the entire Venetian act from Shakespeare’s tragedy, and in Falstaff we get some but not all of Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor.
Necessity dictates that a composer thinking of adapting Hamlet, which uncut can clock in at close to five hours running time, be very selective about what to keep and what to lose.
Brett Dean has composed an operatic Hamlet now released by Opus Arte as a DVD. Dean and his librettist Matthew Jocelyn have kept about one half of the play. Dean’s opera is Hamlet’s story as seen through the Prince’s eyes. Unfortunately that does not quite solve the problem of how to set that play to music. With Fortimbras gone, the political backdrop of the story goes too and the story is left half-told.
We see from the onset the odd behavior of Hamlet, played by tenor Allan Clayton as a sloppy and overweight fellow, casually friendly one minute, somber and ill-mannered the next.
Everyone else in this Hamlet-seen-through-the-eyes-of-Hamlet is whatever Hamlet makes of them. Claudius (Rodney Gilfry) comes off as a pretentious bully, the Old King is played by the once sonorous John Tomlinson as an eccentric grandfather fond of parading around in his underwear. Tomlinson also plays both the Player King and the Gravedigger injecting histrionics when his once glorious voice no longer can do much.
Barbara Hannigan looking a bit long in the tooth to be convincing as the virginal Ophelia also plays a good portion of the opera in her underwear. Sarah Connolly is Gertrude, Kim Begley is Polonius and Jacques Imbrailo is Horatio, but it is only the latter that makes a memorable impression with his honest acting.
In Opera these days it is touch and go to find one that succeeds in delivering music that singers can sing and audiences can enjoy. After listening to this Hamlet I could not come up with one moment where Shakespeare’s words and Brett Dean’s aggressively dissonant music coalesced. The libretto sounds like a random catch-all collection of Shakespearean one-liners sorely lacking one single moment where an entire speech from the play is set to music that compels one to listen.
The visual aspects of the production are erratic. The costuming ranges mostly from tuxedos for the men and cocktail dresses for the ladies, elegant one moment, off the rack the next. The action is confined to a single set: a large dining room which partially morphs into the graveyard where Ophelia is to be buried, but the scene ends up looking as if the poor girl is being interred next to the kitchen. The lighting is uniformly gloomy, making everyone look yellow or pasty white.
So much of the text is buried by the music that I found myself straining to follow what was being sung, which made one suspect that the composer was not all that interested in giving preference to the words of the Bard over his own music. That, in turn, made one all the more appreciative of the care that composers that successfully set Shakespeare to music have taken in the past.
So for now I am staying with Verdi, Gounod’s R & J, and Thomas’ Hamlet until something better comes along.
Rafael de Acha