How to turn one of Shakespeare’s late “problem plays” into an opera? It’s something which has preoccupied conductor and composer Ryan Wigglesworth since his student days. Now 37, his ruminations have come to fruition in this commission for English National opera (ENO) and in The Winter’s Tale, he has produced an opera for our troubled times – tense, unsettling and eloquently-scored.
Wigglesworth admits that while he’s never seen a convincing stage version of The Winter’s Tale, the material is ripe for operatic adaptation, not only its powerful central theme – a king looking back repentantly over his past – but also the set pieces of dramatic crisis: the trial, the storm, the passing of the years. In Wigglesworth’s version, plot and text are stripped right back – an adaptation into another art form almost begs a radical appraisal of what is essential to the narrative – and Wigglesworth’s concision means one never feels overloaded with music. In fact, one of the most striking features of this opera, amongst many others, is the way text and music dovetail to create a condensed dramatic whole which vibrates with intensity. Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter does not lend itself easily to song (it’s too long to be sung intelligibly), so Wigglesworth, who also wrote the libretto, has created a text which has a keen sense of the poetry of Shakespeare, artful but never simplistic, set to music which is mercurial, lyrical and deeply atmospheric with its tender washes of strings, haunting clarinet lines, anxious flutter-tongued flute, portentous growling basses and trombones, and edgy xylophone and snare drum to match Leontes’ agitation and suspicion about his queen. A Britten-like melancholy and tautness suffuses the score.
It is the “fake news” in Leontes’ head which drives the narrative in the first act. He suspects his wife Hermione is having an affair with Polixenes, King of Bohemia, but unlike Othello, who is convinced by Iago’s weasel words, Leontes believes his own propaganda and every touch, every incline of the head between Hermione and Polixenes feeds his fears. Baritone Iain Paterson portrays a King of Sicilia who is both powerful yet vulnerable. At times his voice almost creaks with emotion, his broad-shoulders clad in a boxy uniform seem poised on the cusp of collapse. In the opening sequence he parades and preens, self-admiring and proud, his body language redolent of a more contemporary leader who favours over-sized suits and self-aggrandisement….. The contrast between this and the broken, repentant man we meet in Act 3 is stark and poignantly drawn.
His queen Hermione, elegantly sung by Sophie Bevan, is gently flirtatious but never openly coquettish with Polixenes. When she begs him to stay in Sicilia, it is the pleading of a friend not a lover. Polixenes, sharply sung by Leigh Melrose, takes heed of servant Camillo’s advice and flees Sicilia before the trial.
The trial is the dramatic heart of Act 1 and is the first opportunity for the ENO’s fine chorus to come to the fore as the crowd who act like a Greek chorus, chanting their support for Hermione and calling upon the god Apollo. The revolving, circular set is used to great dramatic effect here, cleaving into jagged parts which then form a seascape for baby Perdita’s storm-tossed journey to Bohemia. In Act 3 the fractured walls reflect the King’s emotional scars.
The action moves forward apace in Act 1, yet the claustrophobic intensity of the narrative, the spare language and unsettling, haunting scoring create a sense of time elongated.
Act 2 opens in sunny Bohemia, a place of honey-stoned buildings and cheerful pavement cafés. This is where Perdita, Leontes’ daughter, has made her home, adopted by a kindly shepherd and in love with Florizel, son of Polixenes. But suspicious stalks the streets here too: camouflaged soldiers prod and provoke the crowd, and Polixenes appears in battle fatigues and dark glasses, like the military dictator of a South American republic. The joyful, folksy celebration of Perdita and Florizel’s love cannot last long and the couple are forced to flee to Sicilia, pursued by Polixenes.
The final Act, the scene of recognition and reconciliation between Leontes and his daughter ends not with a neat tying up of ends as one normally finds in theatrical productions of this play. A sense of ambiguity, of incompleteness pervades, and Leontes’ final soliloquy “Stars, stars, all eyes else dead coals!” is a moment of raw emotion.
Acclaimed actor Rory Kinnear, who makes his directorial debut, has set the narrative in a modern-day military state, replete with oversized state statues, sharply fitted uniforms heavy with medals and gold-frogging, and fearful obsequious servants – excepting the queen’s stalwart supporter Paulina, magnificently sung by Susan Bickley. The set’s concentric circular walls work well in informing and moving forward the narrative and create a sense of “us looking in on them”, as almost voyeuristic observers of the action.
There may be trouble at the top at ENO, but down on the stage great things are happening and this production of The Winter’s Tale further confirms that.
The Winter’s Tale continues in repertory at ENO/London Coliseum until 14 March 2017
(Photo: Sophie Bevan, Zach Roberts and Iain Paterson in ENO’s ‘The Winter’s Tale’. Picture by Johan Persson)