Dean’s “Hamlet” in Met Broadcast Premiere

Photo from YouTube video of highlights from “Hamlet,” tenor Allan Clayton on the right.

DEAN: Hamlet / Allan Clayton, tenor (Hamlet); Rod Gilfry, baritone (Claudius); David Butt Philip, tenor (Laertes); Brenda Rae, soprano (Ophelia); William Burden, tenor (Polonius); John Relyea, bass-baritone (Ghost/Gravedigger); Sarah Connolly, mezzo-soprano (Gertrude); Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen, countertenor (Rosencrantz); Christopher Lowrey, countertenor (Guildenstern); Relyea, Manase Latu (tenor), Chad Shelton (tenor); Justin Austin (baritone) (Players); Monica Dewey, Chanáe Curtis, Tesla Kwarteng, Megan Moore, John Matthew Myers, Christian Mark Gibbs, Benjamin Sleverding, William Clay Thompson, offstage voices; Metropolitan Opera Orch.; Nicholas Carter, conductor / live: New York, June 4, 2022

Having already reviewed Jonathan Summer’s extraordinary operatic treatment of Hamlet, I was curious to hear its competitor, this version of the play set to music by Australian composer Brett Dean (b. 1961). Dean started playing violin at age eight, later switching to the viola; after graduating with the highest honors, he got a position as violist with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, starting under Herbert von Karajan in 1985 and continuing in that position until 1999. In 2000, Dean decided to pursue an independent career. Returning to Australia, he worked as both a violist and musical curator, eventually working his way into conducting and composition, having dabbled in the latter since 1988. There’s a long list of his compositions on his Wikipedia page.

Unlike Summer’s Hamlet, which followed the play in a fairly straightforward manner (with scene deletions and contractions, of course), Dean’s Hamlet “shifts the words around.” (Hamlet’s entrance music, for instance, is set to words from “To be or not to be” as well as other monologues by Hamlet.) Also, whereas Summer’s Hamlet used modern harmonies but continually shifted in and out of tonality, Dean’s score is consistently non-tonal. Summer’s full (and sometimes quite loud) orchestration is replaced here with light textures, seldom using the full orchestra. This creates a more “ghostly” ambience.

For the most part, Dean’s vocal music seems to be a combination of modern-atonal parlando style with some elements (but not many) of Benjamin Britten. One difference is that, as the music develops and progresses, Dean uses stronger, more propulsive rhythms than Britten. Since I was just listening to the radio broadcast and not watching a performance of it, I also felt that a great deal of the music is wedded to visual effects. The vocal writing is also much more demanding in range and technical elements than anything Britten ever wrote; much of the score seems to be channeling both Hamlet’s anguished state of mind and the dramatic action on stage. Our Ophelia, Brenda Rae, has vocal hurdles galore to overcome with wide octave-leaps and other effects, but her shrill, acidic voice does not lie easily on the ears. Tenor Allan Clayton, in the title role, has a technically assured voice that is firm and does not have too many problems, but, at least on the Met broadcast, it sounded rather hard at times and had a slight uneven flutter in sustained tones…but then again, it’s a killer role, much harder to negotiate than Summer’s dramatic but more vocally accessible lines.

To sum up, the music of Dean’s Hamlet is dramatically effective but not the least bit attractive even as modern music. This isn’t to say that this wasn’t Dean’s intention; I’m sure it was; but despite all his mental anguish and struggles, Hamlet is not psychotic like Wozzeck or a morally corrupt character like Bomarzo, thus I felt that much of this music, though quite interesting and well written, is simply misapplied here. In several scenes the characters sing at the same time, which creates further musical confusion.  Sarah Connolly, as Gertrude, is at least a decade past her sell-by date.

Yet there are some truly effective scenes, particularly those featuring the outstanding bass-baritone John Relyea as the Ghost. Not only does he have a superb voice as such, but he is a great vocal actor…for that matter, so is Clayton. Much, but not all, of the singers’ diction is clear, which also helps; but this Hamlet is a hard score to listen to, its remorselessly dark, edgy sounds having absolutely no relief in them for the ear. Even Wozzeck and Bomarzo are easier to listen to than this. In this version of the opera, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are sung by countertenors. Big deal; it’s a cheap effect, and frankly, I didn’t like it. And above all else, I really hated Dean’s decision to constantly chop Hamlet’s soliloquies into little pieces and then paste them together his own way in the libretto of the opera. In his hands, just the words “To be or not to be” becomes a mnemonic device, sometimes sung by other characters, which is completely wrong. Who is Brett Dean to decide the order of Shakespeare’s words? Do he think he’s a transcendent genius like William Shakespeare? Well, guess what…he isn’t.

If Summer’s version of the opera did not exist, I would give this a C- for the effort involved in at least trying to make a contemporary music drama of Hamlet. Some of the music, though discontinuous and not suited for this play at all, is interesting on its own terms. Unfortunately for Dean, the Summer Hamlet does exist and, despite the fact that it too is somewhat edgy and modern, is clearly the more unified and tonally accessible score. I’m not just saying that because I really liked Summer’s Hamlet, but rather because I really disliked this one. Even with a better soprano as Ophelia, there’s no way that her character comes across as sympathetic, which she’s supposed to be; she comes across like a psychotic nightmare, and Hamlet emerges as one step away from being a serial killer. About an hour and ten minutes into the opera, we also get—I kid you not—an atonal accordion player. For what purpose? Isn’t the score ugly enough for you without tossing an accordion in? Where are the bagpipes and harmonicas?

The Metropolitan Opera jumped the gun by bringing this very expensive production, which clearly won’t recoup its losses and surely not make this version of Hamlet anywhere near a repertoire piece, to New York. This is yet another example of general director Peter Gelb trying to be “hip,” presenting a piece that garnered rave reviews in England without using discerning taste and choosing the domestic brand instead. Dean’s Hamlet is a piece of edgy modern ephemera destined to be forgotten in a decade. Just like Thomas Adès’ The Tempest. Remember the Tempest?

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

Follow me on Twitter (@Artmusiclounge) or Facebook (as Monique Musique)

Return to homepage OR

Read The Penguin’s Girlfriend’s Guide to Classical Music


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s