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Brett Dean and Neil Armfield’s Hamlet premieres at Glyndebourne to strong reviews

Australian composer Brett Dean’s operatic adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet has premiered at the Glyndebourne Festival in England to strong reviews.

The opera, Dean’s follow-up to his acclaimed 2010 adaptation of Peter Carey’s novel Bliss, is directed by Australian Neil Armfield and features a set by Ralph Myers.

Dean is certainly not the first composer to try his hand at Hamlet, but few have been hugely successful. The head of music at Shakespeare’s Globe Bill Barclay says there have been 40 operas based on Hamlet written since 1812 alone.

Dean’s Hamlet features a libretto by Matthew Jocelyn, made up sections of Shakespeare’s original text, and has a rather eclectic soundscape, with unusual percussion, a small ensemble of singers in the pit and electronic sounds projected around the auditorium.

The production received a five-star review from Richard Morrison in The Times who said he hasn’t seen “a more physically vivid portrayal of the Prince of Denmark”.

He wrote: “Dean’s skill at creating a supercharged orchestral subtext to each scene is matched by his immense theatricality. Quite apart from his unerring pacing of the story, he also creates at least a dozen moments where sheer sonority alone sends shivers up the spine.”

In a four-star review in The Guardian, Erica Jeal wrote: “Dean’s music is many-layered, full of long, clear vocal lines propelled by repeated rhythmic figures in the orchestra, and has moments of delicate beauty – string harmonics tiptoe around Barbara Hannigan’s Ophelia as we first see her mad – and the chorus whispers almost as much as it sings.”

The opera received many other four-star reviews, including one from Rupert Christiansen in The Telegraphwho reported that “The first-night audience for Brett Dean’s new opera roared its approval so vociferously that I feel almost shame-faced to confess to any reservations about its success”, and Richard Fairman in the Financial Times, who called Hamlet the high-point of Glyndebourne’s 2017 season.

But George Hall, writing for The Stagehad a few more reservations and said that “the whole adds up to less than the sum of its parts.”

It’s been strongly rumoured for several months now that Hamlet will feature at a forthcoming Adelaide Festival, where Armfield is co-artistic director. This year’s Adelaide Festival featured another Glyndebourne transfer, Barrie Kosky’s production of Saul.

Photo by Richard Hubert Smith

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