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Reviews

<em>The Winter’s Tale</em>, English National Opera
05 Mar 2017

A Winter's Tale: a world premiere at English National Opera

The first production of Ryan Wigglesworth’s first opera, based upon Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, is clearly a major event in English National Opera’s somewhat trimmed-down season. Wigglesworth, who serves also as conductor and librettist, professes to have been obsessed with the play for more than twenty years, and one can see why The Winter’s Tale, with its theatrical ‘set-pieces’ - the oracle scene, the tempest, the miracle of a moving statue - and its grandiose emotions, dominated as the play is by Leontes’ obsessively articulated, over-intellectualized jealousy, would invite operatic adaptation.

The Winter’s Tale, English National Opera

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: ENO Chorus and Iain Paterson

Photo credit: Johan Persson

 

Wigglesworth tells the ‘tale’ clearly: swiftly and surely we follow the dismal progress that Leontes’ jealousy initiates. The composer-librettist has pruned and pared Shakespeare’s text, cherry-picking some of the play’s memorable and compelling one-liners - ‘Bitter on my tongue. Bitter in my thought.’ - but compressing and excising ruthlessly (one might feel, at times, mercilessly).

Indeed, the brevity of the opera - there is less than two hours of music - is both its strength and weakness. There is certainly an absorbing singularity of focus. But, Shakespeare’s play is more than one ‘tale’ and the erasures rob the drama of its structural parallels and linguistic richness. Yes, music can restore, represent and reinterpret much that has been removed, but Wigglesworth’s score, though beautiful, seemed on this single hearing to be more illustrative than dramatic.

This opera is not so much a ‘sad tale’ that’s ‘best for winter’, but a ‘serious’ Winter’s Tale. Comedy, romance and pastoral are all largely dispensed with, and so we are not offered the opportunity to revisit the ‘tale’ in different contexts and learn new meanings; this unbalances the structure of the drama, making the reversal and restoration of the final moments less convincing.

For when Shakespeare throws a foundling story into the mix he provides an escape route from the tragic trajectory which up until that point seems unavoidable. ‘Time, the Chorus’ ushers us into a new, natural world, one where Leontes’ mistakes need not be as important as they initially seem. And, though we return from the pastoral idyll in Shakespeare’s final act, the spirit of romance penetrates Sicilia. The ‘resurrection’ of Hermione harks back to myths of gods reborn as well as fairy-tales of ‘sleeping’ maidens. Leontes’ discovery of long-lost friend/daughter/son-brother, and the self-deceiving ‘lies’ that the lovers tell about their regal/non-regal status are the stuff of comedy. These generic echoes surely affect how ‘seriously’ we take Leontes’ jealousy and the statue scene?

Here, though, we have no Autolycus - that tale-teller and singer, rogue agent of Providence and man of masks who brings laughter into the tragedy. The all-singing, all-dancing confidence trickster is also an unwilling agent for good: he defects the Shepherd and Clown from taking the fardel to the King; and when he witnesses the denunciation of Florizel and Perdita by Polixenes, Autolycus decides, though his motives are ambiguous, to take a hand in the action, providing Florizel with his disguise.

Not only does Autolycus provide an antidote to sentiment in the pastoral comedy, he also offers a playful counterpoint to Leontes’ story, paralleling the latter’s self-destructiveness, acquiring a growing moral sense. At his last appearance on stage, Autolycus is declared true by the Clown who knows him to be false, a comic variation on Leontes’ declaration that he sees life in what he knows to be stone; both scenes form part of the pattern of discourses on the potential for regeneration in fancy and faith, and on the truth of art grounded in nature.

Zach Roberts Susan Bickley (c) Johan Persson.jpg Zach Roberts and Susan Bickley. Photo credit: Johan Persson.

In Wigglesworth’s opera the latter theme, surely central to Shakespeare’s play, is outweighed - as is all else - by Leontes’ fanatical jealousy. In the brief second Act in rural Bohemia the debate that Polixenes has with Perdita about the relative merits of nature and art, so eloquently argued and which looks back to the stories of the opening and forwards to the reconciliation of the end, scarcely registers.

Of course, we are not watching Shakespeare’s play, and it is perhaps unfair to judge Wigglesworth opera on anything but its own merits. And, the latter are manifold. I began by noting the clarity and directness of the account and this is in no small part due to the nature of the text, and its setting: the short phrases are singer-friendly, full of open vowels and sympathetically set in a Brittenesque manner. (Indeed, there are more than a few spot-the-Britten-opera moments in the score, not least the reading of the indictment in the oracle scene which echoes Swallow’s interrogation of Peter Grimes.) The brevity of the text does mean that the rich figurative arguments of the language, its ‘poetry’, are lost - along with art and artifice, out go the diverse images of madness/imagination, flowers/fishing, sickness/medicine, lost/found, theatre, cosmology etc. - along with the patterning of particular words such as ‘hand’, ‘faith’, ‘fancy’. There is little difference between the register of the Sicilians and the Bohemians, though Wigglesworth uses the woodwind effectively in the rural act, distinguishing the sound-worlds.

The score is spacious and gentle, by turns lean - just a few instruments, or even orchestral silence - and then more luxurious. The instrumental palette is finely variegated; the Act 3 string intermezzo is tender and beautiful. But, the accompaniment does just that, accompanies; seldom does it create dramatic momentum. With the entry of the admirable ENO chorus - at the end of Act 1 as adulators of Hermione, and as festive Bohemians in Act 2 - there is an injection of impetus through the communal festivities that allow the significant mingling of the low and natural population with the court.

ENO The Winter's Tale ENO Chorus Samantha Price (c) Johan Persson.jpgENO Chorus and Samantha Price. Photo credit: Johan Persson.

I was surprised, though, that the moment when Polixenes discovers his son’s plans to marry Perdita is elevated by Wigglesworth to a dramatic intensity equal to Leontes’ wrath in Act 1. There is an obvious parallel between Polixenes’ disapproval and Leontes’ unbending assertion that the world bow to his dream, but surely the pastoral convention - especially the interchange of royalty and shepherds - diminishes the potential impact of any ‘threat’? Then, having turned up the temperature of Polixenes’ ‘madness’, Wigglesworth resorts to unaccompanied spoken text for Polixenes, who bellows that Florizel is no longer his child/son/blood. Surely such a climax is deserving of musical representation?

Leigh Melrose and Iain Paterson (c) Johan Persson.jpg Leigh Melrose and Iain Paterson. Photo credit: Johan Persson.

An enormous statue of the jealous tyrant dominates the Sicilian acts, and Iain Paterson was a towering vocal force, wonderfully embodying first the self-consuming grip of Leontes’ obsession and then the pathos of his ‘winter’, spent ‘in shame perpetual’. This performance was all the more impressive given the terseness of the text, for Paterson was deprived of Leontes’ spitting sequences of rhetoric questions and repetitions which have such an unstoppable momentum in the play, convincing him of the veracity of what in fact he knows to be false.

ENO The Winter's Tale Sophie Bevan and Iain Paterson (c) Johan Persson.jpg Sophie Bevan and Iain Paterson. Photo credit: Johan Persson.

Sophie Bevan delivered some fine outbursts of injustice as the wronged Hermione: ‘There is a grief lodged here which burns’ literally scorches itself into the listener’s heart. Bevan’s soprano is big and rich, and she was well-served by Wigglesworth’s melodic writing. I found this Hermione a little too playful, however, when coaxing Polixenes to stay in Sicilia: charged by her husband to persuade his Bohemian friend to stay, she should be warm and companionable, but never in danger of losing her dignity.

Some literary critics have suggested that Hermione stands for divine Grace, or even the figure of Christ, but Bevan’s Hermione did not acquire such ‘grace’ until the final scene (and this seemed inconsistent with the earlier characterisation), when she offered Perdita a blessing. I wasn’t entirely convinced that Bevan really conveyed the tenacity of the mother’s desire to see her child grow and the strength of her belief in the oracle’s story which, when fulfilled redeem all - but the fault may lie with the adaptation and not with the singer.

Leigh Melrose was firm of voice and conviction as Polixenes, and both he and Timothy Robinson, as the trusted counsellor, Camillo, exhibited superbly clear diction. Robinson was a convincing ‘link’ between the rulers, his mannerisms suggestive of the characteristics of the two courts.

Timothy Robinson and Iain Paterson (c) Johan Persson.jpg Timothy Robinson and Iain Paterson. Photo credit: Johan Persson.

Susan Bickley’s Paulina was tough and confident, insistent on telling the king that Hermione is innocent and has delivered a baby girl. Loyal, frank and resourceful, Paulina’s willpower wins through, and Bickley remained ever-watchful fiercely reminding the old king of his dead wife and intimidating him during the stage-managing the denouement.

Audacious happiness radiated from Anthony Gregory and Samantha Price as Florizel and Perdita. This Perdita’s natural grace belied her lowly status and confirmed her royal strain, and Price’s lyric soprano was equally charming. Gregory used his lovely, warm tenor to raise Florizel above the stereo-type of ‘disguised lover-prince’, showing him to be both gallant and headstrong.

In an interview with The Guardian, Kinnear acknowledge the relevance of Shakespeare’s play in the context of current global politics: ‘It hasn’t escaped us that the piece is about regeneration. About how we still hold on to each other despite fractures, how good things can coalesce around those fractures. And yes, we’re doing a piece about an authoritarian, borderline-tyrannical leader who is appalling in his treatment of women, ignorant of nature, and quick to create borders between a neighbouring country. […] The timing of premiering it in February 2017 is slightly discomforting. Talk about opera being relevant.’

Wigglesworth and Kinnear leave us in no doubt about the potentially tragic consequences of humanity’s ineradicable wish to make the world fit our desires. We are pulled into Leontes’ narrow vision and we are repelled by the insanity of his perspective. As king, he can enforce his delusions on others, and it is only the conventions of pastoral and romance which prevent Leontes’ actions spinning into insanity and death. I just wish that this opera had more to say about art’s potential as a ‘healing power’.

Claire Seymour

Ryan Wigglesworth: The Winter’s Tale

Leontes - Iain Paterson, Hermione - Sophie Bevan, Perdita - Samantha Price, Polixenes - Leigh Melrose, Florizel/Court Official - Anthony Gregory, Paulina - Susan Bickley, Antigonus/Shepherd - Neal Davies, Camillo - Timothy Robinson, Mamillius - Zach Roberts, Two Guards - Geraint Hylton, Michael Burke, Servant - Paul Napier-Burrows; Rory Kinnear - director, Ryan Wiggleworth - conductor, Vicki Mortimer - set design, Moritz Junge - costume design, Jon Clark - lighting design, Imogen Knight - movement, Orchestra and Chorus of English National Opera.

English National Opera, London Coliseum; Friday rd March 2017

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