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Exit, Pursued by a Flare. The Winter’s Tale

by on 9 March 2017

The Winter’s Tale

by Ryan Wigglesworth

English National Opera at The London Coliseum until 14th March

Review by Mark Aspen

Shakespeare has been struck dumb!  English National Opera’s composer-in-residence, Ryan Wigglesworth, has taken Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale and fashioned a very radical operatic version.  This week’s world premiere, under the baton of its composer, and directed by first-time director Rory Kinnear, has been a somewhat risky, and clearly controversial, undertaking for ENO.

Dumb?  Well, Shakespeare’s words have been taken from his mouth, the soaring gorgeous text replaced with a drab modern paraphrasing.  But what do we get in its place?  There is a full exposure of the raw emotions of the story, imaginative composing, dedicated performances by ENO’s incomparable chorus and orchestra, and an amazing spectacle.  So would the dumb Shakespeare be dumbfounded?

We have lost the “snapper-up of unconsidered trifles”, Autolycus, surely one of Shakespeare’s most enigmatic and ambiguous characters, and all the social commentary that goes with it.  We have lost the snapper-off of passing courtiers’ heads, The Bear, begetter of surely one of drama’s best known stage directions, “exit, pursued by a bear”.  Our Antigonus (played with great sympathy by baritone Neal Davies) is last seen as the ship is wrecked in a raging tempest that takes place high above the set.

ENO Winter's Tale

Photography by Johan Persson

And what a set! Designed by Vicki Mortimer as a grey-pink granite castle keep, its circular walls are mounted on a revolve. This allows for an effortless transformation, both from the exclusivity of the statue-ornamented luxury palace interior to the harsh forbidding walls outside where the mob threatens; and from severe Sicilia to bucolic Bohemia.  At the climax of Hermione’s trial, the expulsion of the new-born baby (here including an horrific attempt at consigning it to the flames) and Hermione’s ostensible death, the castle is struck by lightning and split in two.  Reminiscent of the rending of the Temple in Jerusalem, it is an awe-inspiring coup de theatre.

All this broad spectacle often threatens to descend into melodrama, but is rescued by the sincerity of the acting.  Bass-baritone Iain Paterson (last seen at ENO at Hans Sachs in The Mastersingers ) has a powerful stage presence as an autocratic Leontes, overwhelms with his depiction of the character’s unreasoning, unrelenting and unfounded jealousy.

The style of the setting is within a mid-twentieth Century east-European dictatorship.  In Act One, Leontes ultra-bemedalled uniform contrasts starkly with Polixenes’ understated bespoke lounge suit, whereas in Act Two it is the regretful Leontes who is suited and booted while the erstwhile rational Polixenes (energetically portrayed by baritone Leigh Melrose) is now the totalitarian controller, dressed in desert-storm fatigues and dark glasses: a clever touch by award-wining costume designer, Moritz Junge.

Mezzo Susan Bickley’s portrayal of the wise faithful Paulina spoke volumes of the underlying humanity of the character, rising with authority to maintain moral honesty.

ENO’s own Sophie Bevan was outstanding as Hermione, skilfully balancing the character’s dignity and suffering.  With her always bell-like soprano voice, her all too few arias were superb and her top B cry out to the gods as she, as a statue, is resurrected to life was purely ethereal.

Samantha Price was beautifully cast as Perdita (easily looking like the daughter of Bevan’s Hermione) sparkling with fresh light loveliness.  Enthusiastic and animated, Anthony Gregory’s Florizel came across as starry-eyed and very much in love with her, but determined and defiant when the push came to the shove.

Wigglesworth’s score is full of individuality and invention, although occasionally a little cinematic, such as tolling bells to indicate the passage of time.  Measured harmonic developments, smacking a little of Michael Tippett, with much use of harp with piano passages, build to their best when using the skills of the ENO chorus at its best.  The menacing mob’s slowly building crescendo, enhanced by Imogen Knight’s movement choreography, in Release our Queen had, to my ears, more than a hint of Philip Glass.

Nevertheless, I do wish Shakespeare had been given some of his voice.  “When you do dance, I wish you a wave o’ the sea” would do.  But maybe of Wigglesworth’s Winter’s Tale our poor dumb Shakespeare might have agreed with Polixenes that “This is an art which does not mend nature, change it rather, but the art itself is nature.”

 Mark Aspen

March 2017


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