From the Met: Jocelyn and Dean create a Hamlet

Adapting a play into an opera can be fascinating work, especially when it’s as well-known a play as Hamlet. I’ve seen several attempts to turn this play into something else including a couple of musicals, an opera long ago, and today’s production on the Met high-definition series in a movie theatre.

While it may be early to pronounce the adaptation by Brett Dean and Matthew Jocelyn a success, I’d like to stay away from anything like an appraisal. First and foremost, it’s no stretch to say that the work is satisfying to audiences, not when I watched the audience scream their approval, or when I teared up in so many scenes, including the last one. I liked it a great deal but of course that’s just one opinion.

You may remember Jocelyn as the former Artistic Director of Canadian Stage, a champion of inter-disciplinary performance for many years, and a successful opera director. Dean too was here as curator of the Toronto Symphony New Creations festival in 2016.

Matthew Jocelyn (photo: V Tony Hauser)

Yes there are parts of Shakespeare’s original that are missing. But just as I doubt we’d pronounce Verdi’s Otello a failure because of the omission of the first act, making note of divergences doesn’t mean dismissal. I admire the ways Meredith Oakes altered the ending of The Tempest, the one composed by Thomas Adès, changes that resemble some of what Matthew Jocelyn does in his libretto of Hamlet.

There’s no sign of Fortinbras, so the usual last line to bid the soldiers to shoot can’t happen. The ghost isn’t seen on the battlements to begin. And –minor change—it’s Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern rather than Osric explaining the wager and then judging the fencing contest in the last scene of the show.
Those distinctions aren’t significant.

Far more important are the ways in which Jocelyn and Dean approach the text. You might recall the Tempest adaptation of Adès/Oakes, where librettist Oakes dared to write shorter lines, disregarding Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter. Just as Mallarmé, when confronted with Debussy’s musical setting of Après-midi d’un faune, said something along the lines of “I thought I already set it to music”, so too perhaps Shakespeare (if he could be reached for comment).

If you’re to sing intelligibly for an audience over an orchestra you can’t also be dealing with humongous lines of imagistic poetry. Oakes wrote shorter lines. Jocelyn did something different but comparable, namely giving short chunks of text to a character and then often having the lines repeated many times, sometimes by another character. Hamlet says “or not to be” over and over near the beginning. And we hear “the rest is…” without that last word several times before finally finishing the well-known sentence. I would have wished for Jocelyn to have made the truly brave choice, leaving out the “is silence” because if he’s dead after having said “the rest is” without saying “silence”, we know enough Shakespeare to fill in the blank ourselves. Oh well.

And sometimes the repetition was handed back and forth among several characters. I liked the effect although at such moments I’m reminded of something I saw in a review, when Zachary Woolfe of the NY Times calls it “”an adaptation about ‘Hamlet’ as much as it is an adaptation of ‘Hamlet’”. Yes. When the actor who will be the player king is the one saying “to be or not to be”, we’re in curiously meta- dramatical territory. But this is possibly the best known play in the English language. I only wish Jocelyn had done more rather than less of this, as for example Hamlet’s last line.

Missing too are most of Hamlet’s famous soliloquys, among the treasures of the play. But the role is already huge, so something had to go. I think the choice is valid, even if there will be those coming to the text feeling cheated of their favorite parts.

Allan Clayton’s Hamlet is tremendous vocally and dramatically. There are places where I might quibble with the choices Jocelyn and Dean made, for instance in emphasizing the conspiracy brewing between Claudius and Laertes against Hamlet, leaving Hamlet to have a bigger share of the scene in the graveyard (where usually Laertes and Hamlet aren’t just debating who loved her more but coming to blows). But in this moment as in almost every one, the results were powerful, compelling, dramatic. And the bottom line that can’t be forgotten is that in a play that’s already so long, trying to include everything would make the opera impossibly lengthy. I think when you watch this opera you will be seeing a Hamlet to move you a great deal, a portrayal that wins you over.

Rod Gilfry is a very believable Claudius, but darker than any I’ve ever seen to be honest. If there’s a problem in this, it’s in the dynamics with the others. I’m reminded of some of the Iagos and Hagens I’ve seen, whose transparent evil makes the characters around them look gullible for believing them. Just as an obviously evil Iago or Hagen undermines your Otello or your Siegfried and make them seem less hero than patsy, similarly with Gertrude, especially when she seems clueless about her son’s feelings. Gilfry’s singing is excellent but the role as written doesn’t have the ambiguities I recall from stage productions, where we may question whether the ghost might just be a figment of Hamlet’s mind. In this operatic treatment Claudius is unambiguous. I welcome productions where I believe that some of Claudius’s motivation is his attraction for Gertrude, that his prayer has some semblance of feeling. Yes Sarah Connolly sings a beautiful Gertrude, convincing in the big scene with Hamlet where Polonius is murdered.

William Burden is quite wonderful as Polonius, a voice heard in Toronto with the COC in Death in Venice and Semele. Jocelyn and Dean giving us some absurdly wonderful text to flesh him out. His final lines as he dies recapitulate his bizarre list of genres with the players. He repeatedly addresses his daughter as “green girl”: a line Shakespeare’s Polonius utters but once, that not only becomes his mantra towards her, but –once she is mad—becomes something she utters too.

Ophelia’s mad scene (Brenda Rae) observed by a concerned Gertrude (Sarah Connolly)

Oh my, I cried a lot for Ophelia, a character who has never touched me nearly so much as in this version. I’m tearing up just thinking about her. It may be the combination of Brenda Rae’s performance, as well as the costuming in her final scene that leaves her looking like a ravaged survivor of a ship-wreck without the serenity of the famous Millais painting. I’m accustomed to crying for Laertes too as I usually see him and his sister as innocent victims of circumstance, but he’s made into more of an active conspirator than victim in the Jocelyn / Dean version. I thought we hear Ophelia singing along with Gertrude in the scene when her death is reported, an inspired touch, even if this too seems a bit like a gloss on the play, an adaptation in some respect that’s about Hamlet rather than merely adapting it. And it’s no coincidence that this relatively small role gets one of the last curtain calls, and the audience goes crazy for her.

The other key player is perhaps to be expected, John Relyea in multiple roles, as Hamlet’s father, as the grave-digger and a player. Relyea is electrifying every time we see him regardless of the size of his part, not just vocally but even in his silent moments.

This is a production that premiered in Glyndebourne in 2017. The first Ophelia was Barbara Hannigan who sang “And once I played Ophelia” for String Orchestra and Soprano, another piece by Dean given its Canadian premiere in Toronto in 2019; I can’t recall it well enough to know whether it’s at all like the role in the opera, but the composer’s notes to this piece tell us a great deal about his perception of Ophelia:

Though traditionally portrayed as a meek, even weak character, often dressed in flowing white robes and unable to defend herself before the pressures of Elsinore cause her to snap, I’ve often felt that much of what she says betrays a feistier personality than the one we often are presented. (“And I that sucked from his musicked vows…”) And perhaps, just perhaps, Ophelia drowns not from a romantically-fed whim or madness, but simply because of the pure weight of the words others say about her caught irrevocably in her pockets.”
(from the website of the publisher of the composer Boosey & Hawkes)


Just as Adès & Oake alter the ending to The Tempest, letting Ariel and Caliban inherit the island at the end of his opera, so too Jocelyn and Dean, in their approach to Ophelia. It’s the most conventionally operatic part of Hamlet and very powerful, very successful.

Produced by Neil Armfield, conducted by Nicholas Carter I recommend this without reservation. I hope there’s eventually a video. I will watch for the encore presentation July 23rd. Dean’s score is full of thrilling effects, a small chorus in the orchestra pit, some instruments playing from behind the audience. There are moments of brilliant wit, for instance the roles of Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern as countertenors, the players accompanied by a frenetic accordion, the moans of the chorus observing the carnage of the last scene. I kept wanting to look over my shoulder for the subtle sounds around me (in the stereo of the broadcast), leads me to wonder how much better it would be if heard in person.

To close, here’s a small sample of Brenda Rae’s version of Ophelia’s mad scene in a video from the dress rehearsal of the Metropolitan Opera production.

This entry was posted in Books & Literature, Dance, theatre & musicals, Music and musicology, Opera, Reviews and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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