Let mu­sic be food for thought

Op­er­atic adap­ta­tions of Shake­speare’s plays don’t al­ways add a new di­men­sion, but Glyn­de­bourne’s Ham­let passes the test, en­rich­ing un­der­stand­ing of a fa­mil­iar story

Country Life Every Week - - Contents - Michael Billing­ton

Michael Billing­ton analy­ses how mu­sic can en­hance our un­der­stand­ing of Shake­speare

SHAKE­SPEARE has been the source of count­less op­eras and mu­si­cals, but when­ever I see a show based on a fa­mil­iar text, I ap­ply one sim­ple test: does the mu­sic en­rich my un­der­stand­ing of the play or sim­ply of­fer a dec­o­ra­tive ac­com­pa­ni­ment? On those grounds, I have no hes­i­ta­tion in say­ing that Glyn­de­bourne’s new Ham­let, with a score by Aus­tralian com­poser Brett Dean and a li­bretto by Matthew Jo­ce­lyn, tri­umphantly suc­ceeds.

It plays in West Sus­sex un­til July 6, when it will be broad­cast live to cine­mas and will form part of the Glyn­de­bourne au­tumn tour. I’d warmly rec­om­mend you to catch it if you can.

Be­fore ex­plain­ing why it works, it’s worth look­ing at the way in which Shake­speare’s plays have in­spired com­posers and li­bret­tists, the most fa­mous ex­am­ple be­ing West Side Story, which trans­lates the ac­tion to New York. Aside from the jazzy ex­cite­ment of Bern­stein’s score, I’ve al­ways thought the mu­si­cal, in one cru­cial way, im­proves on Romeo and Juliet.

In the play, the tragedy hinges on the faulty postal ser­vice be­tween Verona and Man­tua in that Friar Lau­rence’s mes­sage about Juliet’s sim­u­lated death fails to get through. In the mu­si­cal, the vi­tal mes­sen­ger, Anita, is so abused by the Jets that she tells them Maria is dead. For once, the cli­mac­tic tragedy is plau­si­bly mo­ti­vated.

With opera, I ap­ply the same test: does the work heighten or illuminate the orig­i­nal in any way? Verdi was the most ded­i­cated Shake­spearean com­poser and his great­est works in­ten­sify our un­der­stand­ing. His Fal­staff is a far richer achieve­ment than The Merry Wives of Wind­sor, which in­spired it: just think of that fi­nal fu­gal cho­rus that cel­e­brates the ab­sur­dity of the hu­man con­di­tion.

Verdi’s Otello not only matches its source, but when Iago con­fesses his ni­hilis­tic phi­los­o­phy —‘Credo in un Dio crudel’—it of­fers some­thing ab­sent from the play. Per­haps be­cause I’ve never seen an out­stand­ing pro­duc­tion of it, I’m less per­suaded by his Macbeth, with witches who are as much cack­ling gos­sips as

orac­u­lar prophets. Even the mu­sic can’t make up for the con­cen­trated po­etic power of Shake­speare’s ver­sion.

Among mod­ern works, Brit­ten’s

A Mid­sum­mer Night’s Dream

is the supreme ex­am­ple of an opera that adds an ex­tra di­men­sion to Shake­speare. See­ing Sir Peter Hall’s fa­mous pro­duc­tion re­vived at Glyn­de­bourne last year, I was en­chanted by the way the com­poser, in the open­ing bars, evokes the rustling leaves and creak­ing branches of the wood: this is mu­sic as a source of magic.

The use of harps and harp­si­chord for the fairies, strings and wood­wind for the lovers, bas­soon and brass for the rus­tics, also char­ac­terises the dif­fer­ent worlds of the play.

Watch­ing Ryan Wig­glesworth’s ver­sion of The Win­ter’s Tale for ENO this year, how­ever, I found my­self ad­mir­ing the com­poser’s skill with­out ever feel­ing that the score was do­ing more than set­ting words to mu­sic.

I ad­mit that I ap­proached Mr Dean’s new op­er­atic Ham­let with a cer­tain wari­ness. Hav­ing seen at least 50 pro­duc­tions of the play, I won­dered what mu­sic could pos­si­bly add. I can only say that my doubts were im­me­di­ately over­come. For a start, Mr Jo­ce­lyn’s li­bretto is not a pre­cis of the play, but a to­tal reimag­in­ing of it in which Shake­speare’s words are re­ordered and re-felt. The first image is of an an­guished, spotlit Ham­let, in the midst of a mum­mi­fied court, ut­ter­ing bro­ken phrases such as ‘…or not to be’ and ‘quin­tes­sence of dust’ as if an­tic­i­pat­ing the trauma that awaits him.

Mr Dean’s mu­sic also per­fectly ex­presses the jagged state of Ham­let’s mind and goes on, in myr­iad ways, to high­light in­di­vid­ual char­ac­ters. Hav­ing played Ophe­lia as a school­boy, I’ve al­ways had a spe­cial in­ter­est in her while ac­knowl­edg­ing that she’s very dif­fi­cult to play: she stands around be­ing preached at and abused be­fore de­scend­ing into pre­cip­i­tous mad­ness af­ter the death of a fa­ther for whom she never dis­played great love. How­ever, in Bar­bara Han­ni­gan’s su­perb per­for­mance, she be­comes piv­otal to the opera.

Our first glimpse of this Ophe­lia is as a face at a win­dow im­ply­ing her ex­clu­sion from court rit­ual. The singer also hints at some­thing fever­ish and des­per­ate in her love for Ham­let so that her mad scene, in which she ap­pears mud­died and stripped to her un­der­wear, ac­quires a dread­ful in­evitabil­ity. Even the way she writhes on the floor to a crazy per­cus­sion, as she sings the word ‘joy’, gives us ac­cess to Ophe­lia’s tor­ment.

The treat­ment of the Ghost is equally orig­i­nal. It helps that he’s sung by the mag­is­te­rial Sir John Tom­lin­son and is not some clank­ing spec­tre, but a highly cor­po­real fig­ure first dis­cov­ered by Ham­let seated alone in the state room. How­ever, when Sir John reap­pears as the First Player, who fi­nally gets to say ‘To be or not to be’, and later as the Gravedig­ger, sev­eral thoughts cross our mind. Might the Ghost be less a re­al­ity than sim­ply the em­bod­i­ment of Ham­let’s con­science and his dark sus­pi­cions about Claudius’s vil­lainy? The opera leaves us to draw our own con­clu­sions.

Not all the char­ac­ters are so ex­ten­sively reimag­ined. It’s won­der­ful to have the great mez­zoso­prano Sarah Con­nolly as Gertrude, but the opera never ex­plores—as many re­cent stage pro­duc­tions have done—the ex­tent of her com­plic­ity in Claudius’s ac­tions.

For one mo­ment, I thought that Rosen­crantz and Guilden­stern—wit­tily cast as coun­tertenors and, in the per­for­mances of Ru­pert Entick­nap and Christo­pher Lowrey, like Gilbert & Ge­orge—were go­ing to sur­vive, but, hap­pily, they got their come­up­pance.

At the heart of the evening is Al­lan Clay­ton’s ex­cel­lent Ham­let. He is any­thing but the tra­di­tional, mood­ily ro­man­tic Dane with an aquiline pro­file: in­stead, he’s a rather bear-like fig­ure, pal­pa­bly trou­bled but en­dowed with an an­ar­chic mis­chief that leads him to ca­reer over table­tops or tie to­gether the shoelaces of syco­phan­tic courtiers.

It’s a beau­ti­fully con­ceived per­for­mance in a pro­duc­tion by Neil Arm­field that ban­ishes cliché while ad­mirably serv­ing a score that, on top of a full or­ches­tra, de­ploys ex­tra per­cus­sion in the boxes and a cho­rus whose voices seem eerily to em­anate from ev­ery part of the au­di­to­rium.

All the words de­rive from Shake­speare, yet, as some­one who has spent a large part of his life watch­ing Ham­let, I felt as if I was ex­pe­ri­enc­ing the play with fresh eyes and ears. And that, for me, is the ul­ti­mate test.

In Brit­ten’s A Mid­sum­mer Night’s Dream, re­vived last year at Glyn­de­bourne, ‘mu­sic is a source of magic’

Ghostly: Sir John Tom­lin­son and Al­lan Clay­ton in Ham­let

Star­cross’d: West Side Story im­proved on Romeo and Juliet

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