The Winter's Tale, English National Opera | reviews, news & interviews
The Winter's Tale, English National Opera
The Winter's Tale, English National Opera
Concentrated if limited new Shakespeare opera elevated by cast and direction
After a Royal Opera performance of Birtwistle's The Minotaur, a friend spotted Hans Werner Henze in the foyer and had the temerity to ask that annoying question "What did you think?" "Very competent and extremely well performed," came the reply. Which is the measure of Ryan Wigglesworth's Shakespeare adaptation at ENO. Every UK premiere of a new British opera can be sure of one thing - a first-rate cast of English-speaking singers. Perhaps the real surprise here was the debut of that great actor Rory Kinnear as a director: clear and sure-footed throughout.
Clarity is a quality, too, of Wigglesworth's score. His libretto, certainly, is a masterly job of Shakespearean compression, some 20 pages of text telescoping many sentiments but keeping some of the most poetically hard-hitting lines as we move from the harsh, wintry kingdom of Leontes to the spring fairy-tale of Polixenes's Bohemia 16 years later and back to reckoning and recognition. But always beware a composer who talks of "taking on a sound-world". Timbre and colour are vital components, of course, but when they're foregrounded at the expense of variety in musical and harmonic language or careful dramatic delineation of various characters, the result is bound to be limited. This is a parallel if not aurally similar world to George Benjamin's hugely over-rated Written on Skin, fascinating in its instrumental colour but low on dramatic pace (though in this case at least the structure is dictated by Shakespeare).Wigglesworth the Second - as we have to call him now that his namesake Mark Wigglesworth has left the ENO's Oval Office, though Ryan's conducting seems to have come on since I last heard him and lends conviction to agony - is hampered by his post-Berg-and-Mahler narrowness (and those two composers were always dramatically various and sure-footed, of course, in opera and symphony). One descending figure - think Wozzeck's "Ah, Marie!" - is all you'll take away from Act One: when the stakes are angsty from the start, and remain so for Hermione's brief nursery idyll with Paulina and Mamiilius, there's nowhere for Leontes' motiveless jealousy to go. Iain Paterson (pictured above with Timothy Robinson, left, as Camillo) conveys it with marvellous economy and bleakness, but the vocal lines, as in Adès, are unrewarding. There's some half-effective stuff for the chorus, shouting justice for the maligned Hermione and results from Apollo's oracle, but the orchestral interludes are unvaried in their tortuousness.
The real test was going to be whether Wigglesworth could conjure a different world for Hermione's and Leontes's teenage daughter as Bohemian shepherdess and her wooing by a disguised Prince Florizel. He doesn't, in terms of musical language, even if the sounds are more ethereal. Samantha Price and Anthony Gregory (pictured below with the ENO Chorus) charm with very limited material; I suppose it's a mercy we don't get a "hey nonny nonny" divertissement, but this is where a popular, mood-sensitive composer like Joby Talbot, in his music for the Royal Ballet's fitfully very effective take on The Winter's Tale, can give us all the relief we need. Once again, when Polixenes' spoken explosion at his son's behaviour arrives - and it's vehemently delivered by the ever committed Leigh Melrose - it has no real contrasts to fight against.Back in "Sicilia", Wigglesworth does capture the glacial strangeness of the crucial Hermione-as-statue scene; Susan Bickley as Paulina at last gets a chance to exercise her formidable presence and authority, while Sophie Bevan's high-line act - again, under-engaged in Act One - caps the miracle. Where Wigglesworth excels is in stripping down orchestral textures so that one or two solo instruments or two - clarinets, a double-bass with Leontes, a ravishing flute solo - focus the magic, But the denouement would have been so much more effective if it came out of contrasts.
That said, Kinnear - whose programme article is much more flavoursome than Wigglesworth's - never puts a foot wrong, and if his Bohemian scene, over-compressed in the opera, doesn't go wild on vernal contrast, that's in keeping with the same-y musical style. Leontes is a bemedalled dictator in a neoclassical hall of statues - that keeps the Apollo references and the mythmaking pertinent - while Polixenes seems bent on similar autocracy over the seas. Kinnear doesn't labour the point he makes in the programme about "a capricious ruler, easily provoked, fatally proud, appalling in his treatment of women, ignorant of the natural world, quick to throw up barriers between his own and a neighbouring country", but the thought does enter our heads.
Kinnear is wrong about one thing in that note: there is another "major operatic version" of The Winter's Tale, Philippe Boesmans', preserved in a fine recording from Brussels' La Monnaie conducted by Antonio Pappano. A worthier candidate for his attentions, perhaps; but that said, this will certainly merit at least one revival by virtue of its fine team and a story simply if monotonously told. Next, though, let Kinnear loose on the other Shakespearean romances for which he declares his special love: this is one actor who really does have the objectivity and the style to be a top director.
Subscribe to theartsdesk.com
Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 10,000 pieces, we're asking for £2.95 per month or £25 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.
To take an annual subscription now simply click here.
And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?