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‘Hamlet,’ a New Opera, Makes Shakespeare Strange

With this endless proliferation of Hamlets, what more is there to say — or sing? Envisioning an opera made from the play is especially daunting, because so much must be cut in the translation; setting all 4,000 of Shakespeare’s lines to music could easily create an epic as long as Wagner’s “Ring” cycle. Mr. Dean, Mr. Jocelyn and their director, Neil Armfield, are attempting just about the highest-risk adaptation possible. (And in England, no less, just 130 miles from Stratford-upon-Avon.)

With the faces of its characters caked in ghostly Kabuki-style white, and its setting (designed by Ralph Myers) a manor house that gradually transforms into a fractured backstage, this “Hamlet” emphasizes its theatricality, its unreality. With this play as the world’s shared property — as close to a central text as we have, its characters and key lines known to so many — Mr. Dean’s opera abstracts it into a kind of ritual: elegant, sober and intellectually stimulating, yet strangely uninvolving emotionally.

It picks up the evergreen question of how opera should treat Shakespeare. Composers have tended to find in his works a Bard for their times. Verdi’s “Macbeth” (1847) is savage Italian blood and guts, a product of bel canto’s discovery of full-bodied Romanticism.

But Ambroise Thomas’s “Hamlet” (1868), the only other operatic version of the play that’s still regularly performed, is grand and refined, for a period in which the stylized sensitivities of Classicism were still the French theatrical ideal. The children’s chorus of fairies in Britten’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (1960) is an elegy for the loss of innocence in a Europe still rebuilding from war.

For his “The Tempest” (2004), Thomas Adès embraced the dizzying range of an era of musical eclecticism, and Meredith Oakes provided rhyming couplets distilled from Shakespeare’s lines. And now Mr. Dean and his team have created a new opera for our moment, one poised between irony and sincerity, when exploding open a classic and doing it straight can feel like equally unpalatable options.

Their solution? A kind of loving alienation effect. This is an adaptation about “Hamlet” as much as it is an adaptation of “Hamlet.” Thinning, fragmenting and rearranging the lines; removing some iconic passages and giving others in alternative, sometimes startlingly unfamiliar versions; and surrounding the whole in a morose, spectral, sometimes violent landscape of sound, the opera suggests the outlines of Shakespeare’s original and depends on us to fill in the blanks.

Mr. Dean and Mr. Jocelyn are intent on making the play a bit stranger than we might have remembered. They don’t wait to unveil the soliloquy we’re all waiting for: We get a preview right in the opening scene, when Hamlet enters obsessively muttering and stuttering the phrase “or not to be.”

But other than that speech, Hamlet’s soliloquies are gone, almost entirely, and with them his endless, endlessly fascinating vacillation between action and its opposite. You realize in its absence how much of the emotional and thematic weight of the play arises from that conflict, so Mr. Dean’s opera ends up being less about a character working out the problem of his life than it is a static, somber study in mourning. His title character (here the enthusiastic, intense tenor Allan Clayton, unafraid of going guttural) is maniacally disheveled and antic, not deep or ruminative, and while I left the opera house glad to have seen the piece, it was oddly difficult to pinpoint just what it’s about.

One thing that it is about is virtuosity. “Art? Art?” Polonius, the officious adviser, retorts when Gertrude, the queen and Hamlet’s mother, accuses him of an excess of style. “Madam, I use no art.”

But Mr. Dean, born in Australia in 1961, certainly does: just enough art, in fact. With the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted at Glyndebourne with cool precision by Vladimir Jurowski, the score is immaculately stormy, as changeable yet coherent as fast-shifting gray clouds when thunder approaches.

Electronic enhancement feeds wordless choral halos and shivers of percussion around the theater, amplifying shadowy, jazzy riffs, distantly reminiscent of Gershwin, and dusky slashes out of a Bernard Herrmann film score. The troupe of players Hamlet requisitions is accompanied by an onstage accordionist, for a sound appropriately rustic yet prickly. Rosencrantz (Rupert Enticknap) and Guildenstern (Christopher Lowrey) are a pair of needling countertenors; Claudius (Rod Gilfry) and Gertrude (Sarah Connolly) offer darkly robust ingratiation; the veteran John Tomlinson, as the ghost of Hamlet’s father and the gravedigger, has chilling authority.


From left, Jacques Imbrailo, John Tomlinson and Allan Clayton in “Hamlet.”

Richard Hubert Smith

Barbara Hannigan is, in a roundabout way, experienced as Ophelia, having toured the world recently with Hans Abrahamsen’s wintry song cycle “let me tell you,” its text (by Paul Griffiths) containing only words spoken by that character in Shakespeare’s play. Her mad scene in the opera is a tour de force tailored to Ms. Hannigan’s sprawling talents, calling for wire-thin swoops up to the stratosphere; the eerie effect of pounding her chest while singing; a somersault over another performer. The only problem is that Ms. Hannigan seems to know — and to project that she knows — just how expert and fearless she is as a performer. She’s awe-inspiring, a little smug and a little too confident to make Ophelia’s breakdown persuasive.


Barbara Hannigan performing at Carnegie Hall last year.

Caitlin Ochs for The New York Times

The only sequence that felt really persuasive, in fact, was Hamlet’s meditation near the end on Yorick’s skull, when Mr. Dean’s tense, shrouded music was most anchored to a character, to the poetry. It was intelligent sincerity — faithful yet contemporary at once.

Otherwise, much of the opera felt like a moody yet chilly comment on doing “Hamlet.” Can such an artful exercise stand the test of time? That is the question.

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