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Brett Dean’s Hamlet opera will have its Australian premiere at Adelaide Festival

Following its success this year with Barrie Kosky’s production of Saul, Adelaide Festival has announced another large-scale opera to open next year’s festival.

Australian composer Brett Dean’s new operatic version of Hamlet will have its Australian debut next March, directed by Adelaide Festival’s Joint Artistic Director Neil Armfield. The opera had its world premiere in June at the UK’s Glyndebourne Festival Opera — which also originated Kosky’s production of Saul — and was met with strong reviews.

It’s been rumoured for several months now that Hamlet would be coming to Adelaide Festival, but Armfield and his Joint Artistic Director Rachel Healy have today confirmed the production and the full creative team.

The original Glyndebourne creative team — including Australians Armfield, set designer Ralph Myers, and costume designer Alice Babidge — will remount the production in Adelaide, with a cast made up of both local and international singers.

British tenor Allan Clayton will reprise his critically-acclaimed performance in the title role, with American baritone Rod Gilfry as Claudius, and British tenor Kim Begley as Polonius. Australian sopranos Cheryl Barker and Lorina Gore will appear as Gertrude and Ophelia. American counter-tenor Christopher Lowrey plays Guildenstern, British counter-tenor Rupert Enticknap plays Rosencrantz, and Australian singers Sam Sakker and Douglas McNicole appear as Laertes and Horatio, respectably.

Dean and Armfield previously collaborated on the premiere of Dean’s first opera Bliss in 2010. Armfield also comes to the opera having directed a somewhat legendary production of Hamlet the play for Belvoir in 1994 starring Richard Roxburgh, Geoffrey Rush and Cate Blanchett. Shades of that production have been carried across to Dean’s opera.

“Around 2012 or ’13 Brett and I started talking about Hamlet,” Armfield says. “We were in discussion before a libretto or even a librettist existed on the project.

“The play remains the thing I’m most proud of as a director … It was an experience that made me love the play. Normally you go into a project very much in the dark, whereas I went into this project with that experience giving me some sense of mental architecture of the production, against which I could answer all the questions that Brett had.”

Armfield reveals that there was even, at one point, a suggestion from Dean that Horatio might be played by a live dog.

“I thought ‘you’ve been in Berlin too long Brett’, and then pointed out that Horatio’s grieving over the body of Hamlet right at the end of the work is actually the moment when the weight of the tragedy hits you.”

Dean’s score features both an orchestra in the pit and satellite groups of musicians playing above the audience. There’s also a group of singers in the pit, who augment the score and the on-stage chorus.

The Adelaide Symphony Orchestra will play for Hamlet, conducted by its Principal Conductor Nicholas Carter. The ensemble is made up of the State Opera of South Australia chorus.

The libretto, by Matthew Jocelyn, uses Shakespeare’s original words, but the text has been reconfigured and abridged, turning certain phrases into motifs. The first phrase sung in the opera is “To be or not to be”, but the soliloquy is never heard in full during the opera. Instead, fragments of it appear and reappear, performed by different characters.

According to Armfield and Healy, there’s significant international interest in the production of Hamlet, which will play throughout Europe and America in the coming years. Armfield also thinks the opera will have significant staying power.

“You spend a large part of your life working on new operas, and the holy grail really is the potential for a work to, as they say, enter the repertoire; enter the canon,” he says. “That was the great secret hope declared on opening night: everybody was saying ‘this feels like a work that could enter the canon.'”

Armfield and Healy are expecting the Adelaide season to be hugely popular with audiences, but there are just three performances scheduled. There were four performances of Saul in the same theatre this year, which sold out completely by November, with 40% of tickets going to international or interstate visitors.

The pair of artistic directors say they expect Hamlet may sell out even earlier and people will miss out.

“In Adelaide, people traditionally, until Saul, would book very late, and unfortunately we learnt the hard way,” Healy says.

There are a number of reasons why there are just three performances, not least of which is the need for other large-scale festival productions to “bump-in” to the Adelaide Festival Theatre.

“Even thought we know we could probably run Hamlet for the entire festival, it really is just a challenge for festival programming when you’re trying to create opportunities across a range of really fantastic works.”

Armfield says the Adelaide season of Hamlet has been in the planning for several years, and when the artistic directors initially programmed three performances, it felt like an appropriate number given the historical response to new opera in a festival context.

“In the time since we committed to the production and planned those three nights — which we thought was not optimistic but right; we felt that we could fill it — Hamlet has taken off as this kind of phenomenon, so suddenly we’re in this position where we think there’ll be great competition for seats.”

Hamlet is at the Festival Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre on March 2, 4 and 6.

Featured image: © Glyndebourne Productions Ltd Photo: Richard Hubert Smith

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