Opera: Brett Dean / Hamlet

The Metropolitan Opera
Composed by Brett Dean / Libretto by Matthew Jocelyn
Allan Clayton (Hamlet), Sarah Connolly (Gertrude), Rod Gilfry (Claudius), Brenda Rae (Ophelia), David Butt Philip (Laertes), William Burden (Polonius), Jacques Imbrailo (Horatio), Nicholas Carter (Conductor).

Today I spent the afternoon with The Metropolitan Opera’s production of Brett Dean’s Hamlet cued up on their streaming app. Three hours of big big big big opera based on the greatest of Shakespeare’s plays in a contemporary setting. 

This cultural excursion did not go well. I’ll try to tell you why with as much brevity as I can muster because I want to spend as little time as possible reliving it. Here are the lowlights… 

This modern-day realization of Shakespeare opens with a bevy of fancy-dress guests in a European dining hall. Some of the characters – Hamlet, Claudius, Ophelia, and the faces of a few other characters are smeared with gobs of white greasepaint while others are left looking sort of natural. No idea why. And no, don’t explain it to me, if it requires explanation after sitting through 3 hours of it and I’ve already written my notice then it’s too late. 

Amid a large group of elegantly dressed and coiffed banquet guests, Hamlet is costumed in a black tee, black pants and perv overcoat with his hair mussed looking like a wino who just crawled out of a storm drain in downtown Portland. Acts like it, too – he spends a bunch of time in Act I doing clumsy whiteboy dancing and lurching about in the middle of the room while swilling red wine as the guests look on with dumb expressions. No idea why. See above re: explanations. 

With her slender frame, ecru satin dress, and that stupid white paint on her face, Brenda Rae is directed to play the role of Ophelia like a cartoon bridezilla. Just last week I fought for a shopping cart outside of a Trader Joe’s with a Karen who looked and acted just like her – an experience I did not enjoy out in the world for free, much less viewing in an operatic production mounted by a major metro opera company soaking me hundreds in an annual streaming subscription fees. 

Modern-day Shakespeare, sure why not. Love the basic idea. But aren’t even the most deconstructionist Shakespeare’s characters generally more nuanced than the ones in this opera? 

The libretto attempts a hatchet job of the original Shakespeare. Opera is enough of an acquired taste when it’s sung in modern vernacular. Why invite disaster by porting over the Shakespeare-ese? Was the librettist too lazy to conjure up a contemporary interpretation of the bard? 

The music rarely struck me as much more than aural wallpaper. Nothing in harmony, melody or dynamics demanded my ears’ attention. If one of the singers in this thing missed a note, would anyone notice? I include the composer in this debate. Would even the man who wrote it notice? Or care? Would anyone? 

Ophelia’s aria Never Never Never Doubt I Love is the only offering of melodic beauty I found in Hamlet, but it’s too slight of a piece of music to balance 3 hours of opera on top of. Of course, in this affair it’s not enough that Ophelia’s spotlight turn adds some musicality to the proceedings – the singer playing her has to hump the leg of Hamlet’s mother halfway through the aria for emphasis. 

By the end of Act II I just wanted these whitefaced clowns to get the fuck off my TV screen. But I was determined and forged ahead, throwing good time after bad in the name of high art. 

When Hamlet killed Polonius I was happy to see at least one voice of this cast of this wretched opera silenced for the duration. But I was apprehensive that the authors might have written in a variation of the original and contrive to have this other father also come back to haunt me as a ghost just to piss me off. But in the end he stayed very dead, soon followed in death by all the other principal characters except Horatio and after 3 long hours I was released from my self-imposed sentence of house arrest, free to put on some good music to cleanse the sonic mud of this production out of my ears. 

Not one minute of Hamlet did I enjoy. These singers may be wonderful in other things but here they are all, to a person, doing their best in a production that has some grand design to be intentionally hideous on all levels but not so hideous that it’s compelling, and I guess that’s the point of a lot of this kind of modern opera, to be ugly and important and superior and unhappy and edgy enough to allow the audience to be self-congratulatory but not really challenged and sure as HELL not allowed to leave the opera house (or living room) with a memorable tune, melodic passage or leitmotif in their heads. 

In creating his Hamlet, Brett Dean didn’t think to ask himself (ok, you knew this was coming): To be, or not to be? IMO the answer is that it should not be. For me, anyway. Thank you, I’ll see myself out.