Susie, Richard, and I saw *Hamlet* at the Met on June 9, 2022. It's a new adaptation with music by Brett Dean and a libretto by Matthew Jocelyn. It had its premiere at Glyndebourne (a summer opera festival outside of London) in 2017. The Met production is the US premiere.
The show got off to a fascinating start. The house lights went down and the conductor (the extraordinary Nicholas Carter) did not make his entrance into the pit to applause from the audience. It was more or less completely dark in the house when the music started. The first thing we heard was a spooky, haunting sound. The first image we saw was a corner of the orchestra pit, a corner in the percussion section. I read in the program notes that the first sound we heard was the amplified sound of a hard rubber ball being stroked against a tam-tam. Other lights went up, illuminating two sets of percussionists (three each) in a set of boxes on either side of the house. These were used to great effect, we often were immersed in a surround-sound experience, hearing percussion coming from various sources. The music was clearly the most important element of the opera, which is the way it should be.
Librettist Matthew Jocelyn played free and loose with Shakespeare's play to a degree - - it was a creative treatment but never felt like he was improving on it. The stage lights went on in a banquet hall, where a celebration was about to start for Claudius and Gertrude's wedding. Hamlet was center stage, hit with a spotlight, surrounded by semi-darkness. His first words were, "...or not to be." He said that a few times. It was a great way to set the tone for the whole opera.
Another unusual aspect of the score was Dean's use of eight singers in the pit. They anticipated, echoed, and counterpointed with the principal singers. It never felt overdone, it was used sparingly and always in a way to heighten the impact of the music and drama.
I read in the program notes that were was an electronic element of the score but I never was aware of it, it was treated as another color in the orchestral palette. I often heard sounds that I couldn't identify, which is always an exciting experience as a listener. My favorite example of this was in an early scene between Hamlet and Ophelia. He's trying to convince her that he never loved her. She shows him the letters he had written her. He held up a red, heart-shaped valentine at one point and the audience chuckled. It took me a second to recognize that sound, I thought it had come from the orchestra. That's what kind of score it was, full of surprises.
Hamlet was portrayed as a real asshole, a privileged, petulant, entitled, full-of-himself, taken-with-his-own-cleverness 20-year-old college sophomore. Allan Clayton had played him in the 2017 premiere and made his Met debut in the role. He made the most of it though there wasn't much sustained singing involved. I was surprised and a little disappointed that the Met gave him a solo bow before the other bows. The curtain went down at the end of the performance and when it came back up he was alone on the stage for the first round of applause. The curtain went back down and they did the standard spiel, starting with the chorus, then the singers in smaller parts, eventually working their way up to Clayton. I'd only seen this alone on stage solo bow once before at the Met, for *Salome.* That made sense, it's that kind of role. This is not.
Here he is doing his "...or not to be" aria in the first act:
Brenda Rae played Ophelia. This was her third role at the Met and I've seen all three. I'll see everything she does in town, I'm really impressed with her. She's a Wisconsin girl and got her undergrad at UW-Madison where she studied with my friend Mimmi Fulmer. I've never met Brenda but we have many mutual friends, so I feel a connection to her. Her mad scene was the high point of the score - - everything seemed to be working together in a way that didn't happen as much elsewhere. The orchestra had a particular creepy color during this scene, like a wheeze. Rae sang with a full, unsettling range of vocal colors and was fully committed in her physical performance. Here's an excerpt from her mad scene:
She has nothing on the Met calendar in the coming season but I hope she'll be back in 2023-24.
Rod Gilfry gave one of the strongest performances as Claudius. I'd seen him in two chamber operas at BAM recently and it was a treat to see him in a full-scale opera at the Met. He's an extraordinary singing actor.
Sarah Connolly had one of the most memorable moments in the show, the most lyrical music in the score, in the scene where Gertrude announces the suicide of Ophelia. She was greatly aided by the lighting and staging. Thank you to director Neil Armfield for keeping the show moving and staging it in an insightful way but never doing anything goofy or cheap.
John Relyea is a singer who was being promoted by the Met a few years ago and he hadn't done anything too impressive lately. I was thrilled to see him score a huge success in three roles in this show, as the ghost of Hamlet's father, the Player King, and the Gravedigger. He sang gloriously and had a precise manner of movement for all three characters. I hope he'll be doing something special like this in coming seasons. Here he is making his entrance as the ghost of Hamlet's father:
I'll close by mentioning one element of the show that made me smile big time. The troupe of players were played by four singers and an accordion player. That accordion part was thrilling and like many parts of the score, it was often unclear whether we were hearing something he was playing or something coming from the pit. I don't want to see an accordion in every show at the Met but I'm going to Google Veli Kujala and see if he's playing other gigs that I can catch... I'll give him the last word, playing his own arrangement of the Paganini Variations.