Review: Hamlet (Glyndebourne and tour)

A strong second cast for Brett Dean’s new opera as it goes on tour

David Butt Philip as Hamlet and Jennifer France as Ophelia in Hamlet (Glyndebourne Tour)
David Butt Philip as Hamlet and Jennifer France as Ophelia in Hamlet (Glyndebourne Tour)
© Richard Hubert Smith

The curtain call was ecstatic, but what were we applauding?

Let’s start with the shoo-ins. Shakespeare, for one. The play’s the thing, and it’s still there, tucked inside this new opera by Brett Dean that first appeared at Glyndebourne four months ago and now returns at the start of an autumn tour.

Then there were the players, kings and queens to a man and woman, in most cases every bit as powerful in this autumn cast as their summer predecessors had been. And conductor Duncan Ward (one of three previous WhatsOnStage Opera Poll nominees involved, the others being Lloyd Wood the expert revival director and Jennifer France who sings Ophelia) corralled them all magnificently along with a tour orchestra that sounded as if it’s played this stuff for years. It was a dazzling display by what is, after all, a non-permanent seasonal band.

Neil Armfield‘s production, while not the first to cage the Dane inside a stately mansion, is nevertheless more rewarding than many stagings of the play and it brims with invention. And tall, oppressive sets by Ralph Myers flow restlessly and turn themselves inside out like an expressionistic representation of Hamlet’s disturbed mind. Best of all, there’s a cracking sword fight at the end.

Dean’s orchestrations were worth a clap or two as well. They're awash with sonic effects that filled the auditorium and sensitised the ears to unimagined fusions of sound. Eerie, distant voices and quadrophonic clicks and ripples took us deep inside Hamlet’s psyche. They were unforgettable.

Scratch those last three words. They're not strictly true, because texture without tune may be pleasant to latch onto but it’s hard to retain after the event. And here we hit upon the first of the opera’s issues. The lack of melodic muscle may well hamper Hamlet‘s chances of entering the repertory, for while there’s plenty to admire, what’s to love?

'One of our great young lions of opera'

More problematic still is Matthew Jocelyn’s libretto. The reservations in my first review last June still stand, so there's no restatement here except to say that the 110-minute first act needs to lose at least 20 minutes. (Oddly, from the death of Polonius onwards it all becomes taut and thereafter it gives Dean the propulsion he needs.)

Claudius (William Dazeley, excellent) remains undercharacterised, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (the returning Rupert Enticknap, joined for this revival by James Hall) still pigeonhole countertenors as effete twits, and Ophelia, with high soprano France giving the performance of her career, all but walks away with the show.

That she doesn’t, quite, is down to the riveting, virtuosic Hamlet of David Butt Philip. He is one of our great young lions of opera, and with so much going on behind his eyes he’s a formidable actor too. The tenor sang Laertes in the summer; now on the opposing side in the fencing match he gives a dazzling account of the massive, mercurial title role.

Louise Winter may not efface memories of Sarah Connolly’s Gertrude but she suffers nobly, while Gavan Ring as Horatio, Rupert Charlesworth as Laertes and Brian Bannatyne-Scott as the Ghost, Gravedigger and Player King all distinguish themselves – as indeed does the Glyndebourne Chorus under new chorus master Nicholas Jenkins.

Whether or not you caught Hamlet last weekend in its BBC4 transmission from the main summer festival, the experience of hearing it live is unmissable for all its faults. And the present cast does it proud. There are no gremlins in the new batch.

All remaining performances of Hamlet are on Fridays. The opera returns to Glyndebourne on Friday 27 October, then tours to Canterbury, Norwich, Milton Keynes and Plymouth until 1 December.