The Winter's Tale at the English National Opera - A World Premiere
There are tens of thousands of well-meaning operatic compositions that lay in the waste of time. It is extremely difficult to find the template required for a new work that does more than just have its ‘premiere’. To do this, first of all the music has to have some commercial accessibility to it and not be so atonal that repetition becomes unattractive. Furthermore, if possible it should be taut and precise and also have the ‘wow factor’ of a gripping story so that the audience is never left bored. In this respect, Ryan Wigglesworth’s first opera will surely be part of the modern repertoire for many years to come.
It is not perfect by any means. Shakespeare’s play has been cut down to 2 hours so understandably there is compromise with some of the texture and characterisation of the drama. However, the music language provided to us is rarely anything other than dramatic and the orchestral writing, particularly in the third act, is immensely striking. In a way the accessible music - usually heralded at the beginning of each of the 3 acts by pulsating bells representing the toll of time - is sugary and bright, matched by dark intent where required, particularly in the third act where some of the orchestration is outstanding.
It is gripping music combined with a dramatic intent supported by the Director, Rory Kinnear, this being his opera debut. This opera doesn’t delve into the psychological interpretation of the piece and never intends to do so, but it does allow the audience to be gripped by the story and remain interested to the end. It is a compromise on Shakespeare’s play, although some of the poetic lines – ‘Bitter on my tongue. Bitter in my thought’ and ‘She I killed and you what do you say’ – still poignantly remain.
Wigglesworth is not only composer, but conductor and the orchestra plays outstandingly under his baton. Rory Kinnear’s substantial set centred on the statue of Leontes is a revolving piece cleverly allowing for the necessary numerous scene changes. It brings the action and chorus close to the audience when required, particularly around the shepherds house in Act two. In this respect, the Director was very well supported by his set designer, the imperious Vicki Mortimer.
The director and conductor also assembled a mainly British cast, who provided great energy to the story of the two friends, both kings torn apart by jealousy, envy and suspicion, with the despotic Leontes King of Sicilia sung by Iain Paterson and Polixenes, the King of Bohemia, sung by Lee Melrose. Iain Paterson provides us with an enthralling interpretation of Leontes, growling around the stage and showing us the full emotional spectrum of madness, jealousy, love and regret. His portrayal ensures that we dislike this misogynistic King, whilst at the same time ensuring that we end up with sympathy for the loss that he has suffered of his children and wife, however much he appears to be the instigator of this loss.
His wife, Hermione, is wonderfully sung by the soprano, Sophie Bevan, whose relationship with Polixenes seems always pure, despite her husband’s protestation. Her soaring voice and resurrection are amongst the most sublime moments of the opera. Lee Melrose’s interpretation of Polixenes is fulsome and bright in the first act, as it is menacing and dark in the second. This is when he sees his son Florizel, well sung by Anthony Gregory, find the love of Perdita, the discarded daughter of Leontes, beautifully sung by the mezzo soprano Samantha Price.
All the rest of the roles were well sung and well-acted and the chorus provided huge drama in their interpretation of the crowd scenes.
Not perfect, but overall a substantial piece, providing an entertainingly gripping night with an anticipation of lots more to come from Ryan Wigglesworth.
With kind regards,
Monday, 27 February 2017