Power chords

Iain Paterson, Sophie Bevan, Ellie Isherwood and Susan Bickley in ENO's The Winter's Tale. Photograph: Johann Persson

Ryan Wigglesworth
English National Opera

Reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement, March 3rd, 2017

“Nor night nor day no rest . . . .” Repetition is the basic currency of opera, and the opening lines of Leontes’s soliloquy are repeated to good effect in Ryan Wigglesworth’s new operatic adaptation of The Winter’s Tale. We hear it first in the opera’s third scene, the Sicilian King alone in his handsome private study, harangued by biting chords in the low strings, tortured by newspaper reports of his brother’s mockery, fired by the thought that Hermione’s execution might bring relief. It comes again later, at the end of the trial scene: as Hermione, freshly exonerated by Apollo’s oracle, collapses lifeless at his feet, the screws of Leontes’s torment turn mercilessly. Where before his torment was internal, here it is externalized in the form of a nascent political uprising, the King’s lonely complaint drowning in blurred torrents of rapidly descending chromatic scales, egged on by a dissenting chorus fastening their cause to the name of their murdered queen.

But while the disquiet of Shakespeare’s Leontes is offset by the peace which reigns at the play’s beginning and end, Wigglesworth’s hero is fallen from the start. Hermione’s opening rebuke that he “too coldly” enjoins his brother to remain is hyperbolic in the play; in the opera his invitation really is theadbare: “stay”, he barks four times, as the orchestra snuffs out any residual flame of hospitality. Here is a man who seeks the company of others only because he can no longer bear his own. “Stay a while”: the phrase is echoed towards the opera’s close, when he welcomes the fugitive Florizel and Perdita, its tone of desperation distilled over sixteen years of penance.

Rory Kinnear’s staging makes the source of Leontes’s sickness perfectly clear. The worm eating up the Sicilian King, breeding discontent among his subjects, is not mere jealousy but power itself, the power whose steady increase only reminds its holder what lies beyond it. The Sicilian court is arrayed, in Moritz Junge’s costumes, in Mussolini’s colours, while Vicki Mortimer’s circular set, a work of genius in itself, projects the King’s dark power through the play of closed doors, shadowed windows and the mute statues of great men. Lightning-quick scene changes, effected by rotations of the circular walls and shifting internal elements, make a dramatic virtue of theatrical pretence. The court’s kitsch anachronism, meanwhile, is refracted through scenes of youths in hoodies throwing p├ętards at the walls. Later, in the Bohemian scenes, Polixenes and his court wear fatigues and berets. Under the political slogan of “Forward Bohemia”, their salutes are returned with ironic disbelief by the villagers. As the accoutrements of fascism gain a foothold, they are greeted with derision, humorous toleration and the all too familiar swell of impotent indignation.

Scored to his own libretto by a composer still shy of forty, whose experience of opera has hitherto come exclusively from conducting it (including several ENO shows), The Winter’s Tale represents a remarkable achievement for Wigglesworth. Perhaps its most striking feature is the complete self- assurance of its restraint. With an enlarged orchestra at his disposal, and a highly charged tragedy before him, Wigglesworth has opted for an array of spare textures that illuminate the emotional drama rather than driving it forward. The expressive content is less asserted than accumulated through the collision of isolated gestures. True, there are moments of naked operatic power, such as Leontes’s apostrophe to the pitiless stars, in which the strings close coldly around him, and in the chorus which greets Apollo’s oracle with a menacing incantation which, thanks to some stage wizardry, tears apart the palace walls. The comic elements, though wisely reduced to a single short scene, are also cleverly managed, with a folk song-and-dance number used to drive Perdita into Florizel’s public embrace. The bells that open and close the opera are blended cleverly into the orchestral texture through twisting the overtones and gradually establishing the metre, echoing the way the act of storytelling asserts itself by breaking open time’s impassive continuum.

The vocal lines are lyrically shaped, but lightly, to allow the words pride of place (one barely looks at the surtitles). Here too, Wigglesworth has kept as many original phrases as possible but not the metrical structure of the lines, an impressive feat considering the opera is shorter than the play. This generally sound practice only occasionally obscures rather than enhances the action, such as when Hermione playfully rejects Mamillus as “past enduring”. Without the play’s flirtatious trappings, the gesture acquires an unwontedly callous flavour.

Wigglesworth’s assured conducting is matched by Kinnear, a fine actor who has never directed before, though you’d never guess this from the slick stagecraft. The only awkwardness comes from the deployment of Mamillus as the opera’s mute narrator, a play on Shakespeare’s conceit (Mamillus never gets to tell his “winter’s tale”) which works as often as it doesn’t. Elsewhere, Kinnear and Wigglesworth draw some quite breathtaking performances from the orchestra and soloists. Iain Paterson’s wonderfully subtle Leontes makes the role appear classic even before its creation. He is well matched by Sophie Bevan’s full-voiced Hermione. Susan Bickley’s Paulina deserves particular praise for capturing her character with relatively little material. Timothy Robinson's Camillo and Leigh Melrose’s Polixenes offer assured support while Samantha Price and Anthony Gregory succeed in penetrating the moral gloom with their lighter, more lyrical turns as Perdita and Florizel.

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