Review: Hamlet

A new opera based on the most famous text in literature spectacularly transports it to contemporary times.

With Saul and Hamlet, Festival artistic directors Neil Armfield and Rachel Healy have made opera the centrepiece of the Adelaide Festival once again. Like Saul, which was directed by former Adelaide Festival artistic director Barrie Kosky, there are Australian connections to this Glyndebourne-commissioned opera: the score was composed by Brett Dean (Bliss), while Armfield directed (making it two Festival shows in two years for the former Belvoir artistic director, as he was behind the outdoor spectacular The Secret River in 2017).

Rather than start with a jaw-dropping spectacle of an opening ala Saul, Hamlet builds slowly via Brett Dean’s simmering composition and an eye-catching performance by Allan Clayton as Hamlet. Clayton is illuminating as the hero who is also a muckraking scoundrel and maybe even mad. Using only Shakespeare’s words, Librettist Matthew Jocelyn makes the famous lines work more comfortably than expected in this form.

Transported to a modern setting, the opening dinner scene has the appearance of a live action Annie Leibovitz cover shoot, which is interrupted by a troubled Hamlet looking to avenge his dead father. While we’re transfixed by the scheming and eccentric Hamlet our sympathies lie elsewhere, as it is Ophelia (a wonderful Lorina Gore), Hamlet’s lover, who captures the audiences heart.

With spectacular staging — the gravedigger’s scene in particular — wonderful direction, a smattering of humour and a composition that is a more than suitable musical match for most famous text in literature, Dean’s Hamlet is a modern spectacle that finishes with a climax that is impossible to forget.

Here’s to more Glyndebourne operas at the Festival.

This review is of the Friday, March 2 performance of Hamlet. The final performance of Hamlet is Tuesday, March 6.

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