Metropolitan Opera 2021-22 Review: Hamlet

Allan Clayton, Brenda Rae, Rod Gilfy & Cast Shine, Shakespeare Does Not

By David Salazar
(Credit: Karen Almond / Met Opera)

Back in 2017, The Guardian meditated on why, despite being one of the world’s greatest plays, “Hamlet” had no great corresponding operatic adaptation. The article notes that despite there being about 40 actual operatic adaptations, none have stood the test of time or held the stage.

Perhaps the lone work with staying power is Ambroise Thomas’, though it takes great liberties with the text (it’s also in French) that leave the Bard’s iconic play but a shadow of itself.

That article was written with a single question in mind – was Brett Dean’s work, which premiered that year at Glyndebourne and then bowed on the Metropolitan Opera stage on May 13, 2022, to be the one that breaks that hex? And was it, given the work’s elusive history on the operatic stage, even necessary?

“Hamlet,” both the work and its famed protagonist, are renowned for their ambivalent contradictory nature. A revenge thriller about a man trying to avenge his murdered father, the play revels in abrupt tonal shifts from existential brooding to farcical circumstances from one moment to the next. The work, like its eponymous lead’s resolve, grows sloppier and sloppier as it progresses, resulting in an apocalyptic ending in which all of the main characters end up corpses.

So it’s no surprise that in adapting the famed play, Dean and librettist Jocelyn, grapple with the original work’s form in their adaptation.

While watching this “Hamlet,” a plethora of thoughts came to me. Is this an opera or a sung play with music? Is this a self-aware satire or a tragic melodrama? Is it “Hamlet” or a commentary on “Hamlet?” Is the music operatic or more akin to atmospheric noise? Can the work successfully be at odds with itself and still compelling all the same? This identity crisis in many ways mirrors its titular character quite well, thus creating a situation of form and content being solidly united.

But ultimately, what’s left is a fascinating intellectual exercise that stimulates mentally more than it affects emotionally.

Out of the Interminable Chaos

Anyone walking into this production likely had some idea of what “Hamlet” was. In some ways, the play itself and the lack of a truly great operatic work to represent it were probably a major draw for audiences. What if this is THE operatic “Hamlet” likely helped sell out the Met Opera on Friday. But that is both the blessing and the curse for the opera.

Because it’s not a new story (ala “Fire Shut Up in my Bones”) or a new angle on an old story (“Eurydice”), then it’s also a familiar plot we’ve all collectively come to know and understand (Robert Eggers’ film “The Northman” was just released in theaters and portrays a version of the myth that inspired Shakespeare’s play). That puts the onus on the music to make it standout and this will undeniably be the point of conflict for most viewers.

To sum up my feelings of the music, I want to point to a moment right at the end of the opera. Hamlet, after murdering Claudius and Laertes, is dying in the arms of his beloved Horatio. Suddenly, a solo cello starts playing a glorious melodic fragment and my ears stood up. The music grabbed me and held me, its delicacy a revelation. But then I realized why it had such an impact on me – this piece of music, with its sudden tenderness, stood out because the rest of the evening’s music had grown increasingly monotonous.

It’s not that Dean’s score isn’t varied. It moves from slower and softer sections (the scene where Hamlet encounters his father’s ghost; an ensemble in which Gertrude reveals Ophelia’s death) to apocalyptic loudness (every climax in this opera). There are experimental passages in between, such as the entire play sequence wherein an accordion is the main, and sometimes only, musical presence. And to add to that, two instrumental trios (trumpet, clarinet, and percussion) are placed on opposing sides of the audience to create a more immersive feel. And then there are the sound effects that come and go throughout. In program notes, Dean states that his hope is for his music to envelop the audience and toss you inside Hamlet’s splintering mind; the chaos of the music certainly manages that but from an observational standpoint. We are made to NOTICE the sound effects or that an accordion player is dominating a scene, or that there are musicians in the audiences, but it doesn’t necessarily feel like more than a musical trick.

It feels like this because what you end up missing is the character details and moments that truly elevate. Hamlet’s anguish seems to oscillate between extremes of musical chaos (which again makes sense intellectually), but never anything in between, thus, zapping him of his complexity and keeping us at arms’ length emotionally.

What was fascinating about works like “Fire Shut up in My Bones” and even “Eurydice” is that despite feeling distinctively modern in their musical approach, still seemed to embrace traditional operatic structure and musical form. And because of this, the audience was allowed opportunities to just sit with its character’s emotions. Whether consciously or subconsciously, you felt their complexity. You were immersed in it.

“Hamlet” shouldn’t necessarily stick to formulas, mainly because its subject matter is so brilliantly unwieldy. But it’s vocal writing feels rather typical of what you might identify with modern opera – an interminable stream of rhythmic recitatives that, without the interpreter’s emotional investment, are unable to elicit much emotion on their own. This places the onus on the performers who are tasked with taking on music that is as hard to sing as it is to listen to; probably even moreso. But even then, because of the cold and calculated manner of the writing, you’re kept at a distance, unable to fully engage. There’s no doubt that musicologists will be the ones to get the most out of what Dean is doing musically. That aside, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, two countertenors, get some of the cheekiest music that plays perfectly into their characters.

(Credit: Karen Almond / Met Opera)

The music’s grinding nature unfortunately hampers its libretto, which opening monologue aside, sticks closely to Shakespeare’s original play. “Hamlet” is a long play that is usually presented in a truncated version and unsurprisingly, Jocelyn and Dean do a lot of trimming of their own.

And yet, the first half, clocking in at 105 minutes, feels like every one of those 6,300 seconds. We are thrown right into a party celebrating the marriage of Gertrude to Claudius. Because of the nature of the music, the character introductions lack a distinctiveness that belabors this entire sequence and it takes time to be truly immersed in the work itself. And because that first half feels so long, the second, which is decidedly swifter (it is an hour in length) and more interesting musically (the Ophelia mad scene and death scene are undeniably some of the spotlights) starts to sag. It’s as much a Shakespeare issue as anything with the plot hitting a dead end after the death of Polonius. Hamlet’s desire for vengeance is sidelined while Ophelia loses her mind and Laertes and Claudius figure out how to kill Hamlet. Meanwhile Hamlet is left reactive rather than the potent and complex combination of active-reactive characterization from the first half. And because of this, some moments, like the clowning around with the gravediggers or the joking with Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and Horatio, start to feel like filler that could have easily been compressed or excised to get to the climactic fight. In the midst of all this, some problematic aspects of the play, the entire Ophelia death sequence, comes off as plot necessities rather than major emotional beats.

We see Ophelia bullied and shamed by her father as a “Green Girl.” We see her rejected by Hamlet. And then we see her go into a violent rage of madness that ends in her death. Dean and Jocelyn then portray Hamlet’s reaction to her death as adequately remorseful. But then… a scene transition shows Hamlet clowning around with the others as he prepares for a duel; Ophelia’s death thus feels like a footnote in the story. She is never mentioned again for the rest of the play and the opera does nothing to emphasize her death weighing on Hamlet in any way. Again, this is exactly as it is in the play, but time and space in a play can be suspended, creating the possibility of a gap that audiences or directors can fill to allow us the emotional transition; in opera, the music fills that gap. In this case, the transition feels so swift musically (and in the staging, more incoming) that as Hamlet jokes about weapons with his friends, one can’t help but feel that Ophelia’s death is a disposable plot point at best.

What is most interesting of all here, especially with regards to Ophelia’s depiction, is that despite the seeming challenge of creating a unique and standalone “Hamlet” opera, the decision to hue so closely to Shakespeare feels a bit safe, almost as if any deficiencies can be easily hidden behind the original’s reputation. Not to belabor the point, but “Eurydice” comes into direct conversation with the original legend it is inspired by from a different viewpoint, making it not only fresh and insightful, but a standalone piece that succeeds or fails on its own (I believe it’s the former). In this light, is a new “Hamlet,” as presented, even necessary in an opera world craving new stories, new voices, new perspectives?

Double-Edged Sword

Unsurprisingly, Neil Armfield’s direction, like Dean’s music, can be a double-edged sword. Armfield is no stranger to this play, having led a production with Richard Roxburgh, Geoffrey Rush, and Cate Blanchett. And his choice to create a hybrid setting is brilliant. The monochromatic set and production design is elegant in its approach, showcasing a grand white hall at the start. As the play and Hamlet’s mind unravel, the décor from the start becomes increasingly fragmented with all of the connecting sets (the hall, the stage play), all blending into one another. It’s a subtle metaphor that functions brilliantly with the story it is telling us. The choice to have the gravesite descend from above is also a unique grace note, eerily connecting to the opera’s fantastical elements. The fight choreography and effects at the climax of the opera are top-notch and I doubt that anyone will see more riveting stagecraft or choreography on the Met stage this season. The ending, with its enveloping darkness, which mirrors the opera’s opening, emphasizes the nihilistic ending and Hamlet’s own “The rest is silence.”

The staging of the play, by movement director Denni Sayers, is potent and effective, as is the contrasty blue hue that follows the Ghost of the King at every one of his entrances.

It’s in his direction of the character of Hamlet that Armfield runs into trouble. Hamlet is an omnipresent force throughout the opera, with Ophelia at one point noting how he’s almost a chorus-like figure. And it makes sense. He’s the central figure and him occupying an ambiguous place in the story’s development, as protagonist and commentator, plays into that. And you can’t blame him for making Hamlet a bit of shapeshifter either – running, prancing, skipping in some moments and brooding on the floor in others (Ophelia’s burial) – that’s in his very nature. But Armfield pushes the envelope a bit at times with Hamlet’s reactions often so on-the-nose or exaggerated that it seems less like he’s commenting on the action as he is begging for audience attention; even if it is not intentional fourth-wall breaking, it certainly feels like it in most instances. That might be the point and given Hamlet’s nature, could be the point, but this signaling to the audience does have the corrosive effect of getting old if over-used; it might be funny at the beginning by seeing Hamlet jumping around and dancing, but over the course of a lengthy night (and it is a lengthy one), the diminishing returns start to set in when Hamlet makes fun of a corpse’s smell while waving his hand over his face repeatedly or puts up bunny ears behind Polonius to mock him. It becomes downright cartoonish.

In the program notes, Dean is quoted as saying the following: “If you don’t sympathize with Hamlet, then it’s an impressive piece but not necessarily a moving one.” And that’s the problem at hand. Dean’s music plays a part in this being “impressive” but “not necessarily a moving one” but in a world where we are exhausted with toxic masculinity, Armfield’s choice to push the depiction of Hamlet into a wreckless man-child also fails to elicit much empathy, much less sympathy. Intellectually, we can understand Hamlet’s plight, his anger, his need for vengeance, and even why Shakespeare’s play is great. But, emotionally, and especially with his irreverent and annoying behavior, it’s a struggle to truly engage.

(Credit: Karen Almond / Met Opera)

Brilliance Onstage

To be clear, this isn’t for a lack of commitment on anyone’s part. The performers are all top-notch. In the title role, Alan Clayton is a revelation in his Met debut. Even if his characterization is questionable (for me at least), from the hushed and haunting “or not to be…” that opens the opera, there’s no denying that he’s fully immersed in every microscopic detail attached to it. Not for one second do you even consider that this is an opera singer interpreting a character. He is the character. Arguably his most riveting moment came in the scene with his mother, where his tenor went wild in one moment and then clamped to a more yearning call as he saw his father’s ghost. Later, as he lamented Ophelia, the tenor somehow found even more vocal resources to flood the Metropolitan Opera hall, delivering a gut-wrenching moment. His most physical moments were also the most impactful, whether it be him crawling about like a snake in some moments, or his failed murder attempt of his uncle, his face pale and his body completely frozen. The fight choreography at the end was compellingly delivered. Most times, opera singers look like they’re going through the mandatory motions of the fight choreography; you can sense they are withholding a bit, which makes sense given the stamina required for them to sing. But Clayton was so immersed in his portrayal that there was no reason to even consider any of that (again, I can’t emphasize how excruciatingly difficult this music must have been to learn, memorize, and then perform for him and the rest of the cast).

As Ophelia, Brenda Rae displayed tremendous vocal technique and stage presence. Ophelia is portrayed as a shy girl who gets bullied by her father. She gets a subtle musical motif in which she repeats “Never, never, never…” that emphasizes this restrained and timid nature. And while she gets some eventful high notes in the first half, she feels like a marginal character for most of it. But the top of the second half is all hers with a ferocious mad scene that Rae brought all her artistic talents to. Enter the stage in a muddied frenzy, she stalked about the stage, leering at Gertrude, flirting with Laertes, and in one intense moment, literally beating her chest as she blasted her chest voice into the auditorium (without missing a note). Moments later, she was running around the stage, while singing some extreme and secure high notes, before jumping into Claudius’ arms. And in the final moments of the scene, she imbued soft legato lines, while lying on the floor. This was right in line with her similarly virtuosic display in “Agrippina” a few seasons ago.

As Claudius, Rod Gilfry was illustrious and elegant; there was a coolness and aloofness to his portrayal, a glass veneer that was easily shattered under duress. This was most visible in his sudden reaction to the play or his explosive high notes during his confession scene a few moments later. That all developed into full-blown cowardness in the final acts. He looked completely at a loss during Ophelia’s death scene and ran around like a scared child as Hamlet stalked him about the stage.

Conversely, Sarah Connolly’s Gertrude had an innocence about her in the opening moments, which made Hamlet’s accusations all the more potent during their confrontation. Her mournful singing as she related Ophelia’s death, a soft and gentle legato, stood out as a major moment of introspection and immersion; one of those rare moments where time seemed to stop in this performance and truly allow the audience to process the character’s emotions. When she cries out in the opera’s final scene that she’s been poisoned, there was an assertiveness that contrasted potently with her initial portrayal.

John Relyea was triple-cast as the Ghost, the lead player, and the gravedigger. He was fun in the latter two roles, but really made his mark as the Ghost, his dark voice truly exploding into the Met’s cavernous space. His body language, lunging about like a predator stalking its prey, also made him a formidable figure and helped establish Hamlet’s obsession with vengeance. It was nice to see a longing expression on Relyea’s Ghost as he walked backward away from Hamlet at the close of the first half – it gave the image a vulnerability that also furthered this longing in the titular character.

As Polonius, William Burden was a knockout, managing to play up the character’s more comic traits with tremendous vocal security. Jacques Imbrailo made the most of his debut as Horatio and delivered that ending music beautifully.

The countertenor duo of Christopher Lowrey and Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen, taking on the iconic characters of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, not only got some of the most enjoyable music, but delivered on it. Their early duet was not only notable for the enjoyment they got out of it, but how beautifully they blended their timbres together to both feel like one but also to emphasize their differences. It’s also worth noting that they projected amply in the Met auditorium, no easy feat for any singer, much less for most countertenors; here were two that pulled it off quite noticeably.

In an opera full of tenors (Hamlet and Polonius as well), David Butt Philip made his mark as Laertes. Where Clayton’s singing was aggressive and Burton’s bright, Philip found a middle ground to explore a bit of both. He was elegant and cordial in his approach in earlier scenes but noticeably violent in the latter ones.

The remainder of the ensemble, which featured singers in the pit, on stage, and even in the audience, managed a solid balance throughout the night.

Keeping it all together was conductor Nicholas Carter. As repeatedly noted, this is complex music to conduct, especially considering that, in addition to the orchestra in the pit and the singers on stage, he has two separate ensembles playing behind him throughout the entire night. And through all that, he managed to keep the atmosphere consistent throughout. One notable moment that really stood out was an orchestral crescendo at the climax of the Hamlet-Gertrude scene that rumbled so aggressively that it felt cataclysmic. The ending was also gorgeous with the cello solo rising above the rest of the texture; as I noted before, it was a revelatory moment and Carter made the most of it. Props must be given to accordion player Veli Kujala who musically carried an entire scene on his own.

So, to return to the opening question of this review, is this the definitive operatic “Hamlet?” Who knows. When it comes to questions about repertory and a piece’s longevity within it, repeatability is always at the forefront. This “Hamlet” is a challenging one, both technically for everyone involved, and for the audience. And to pull it all off is an undeniably “impressive” experience.

But, to use Dean’s own words, it’s “not necessarily a moving one.”

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