Wednesday 8 March 2017

The Winter's Tale at ENO, or, Sadly Insufficiently Dramatic

Note: This is a review of the performance on Friday 3rd March 2017.

In advance I had high hopes for this new opera. I previously heard Ryan Wigglesworth's Echo and Narcissus at the Aldeburgh Festival, a dramatic cantata with real drama, emotional punch and superb word setting. I hoped for the same here since the source work, in theory, provides so much to work with. Sadly, despite excellent committed performances, it was not to be.

The best aspect of the evening comes from the work of the performers on stage and in the pit. ENO has assembled a very strong line up of familiar faces for this premiere and they give the work everything. I particularly enjoyed Sophie Bevan's Hermione, Samantha Price's Perdita and Neal Davies (doubling effectively as Antigonus and the Shepherd) but there isn't a weak link. The ENO Chorus are musically strong, though not always well enough directed. In the pit the ENO Orchestra under the composer is on fine form, particularly in the many exposed solo passages, though I did think he wasn't always sufficiently careful about the balance between pit and stage.

Rory Kinnear, making his directorial debut, turns in a solid piece of work, with some very fine touches. The idea of shrinking the stage is a good one. I wasn't wholly convinced by the museum-like setting of the opening scene, but it isn't a baffling choice. In the Act One climax with the assistance of Vicki Mortimer (set) and Jon Clark (lighting) he produces a marvellous storm tossed boat effect which is one of the most beautiful things I've seen on the Coliseum stage for a very long time. But Kinnear does still have things to learn. It isn't an overly busy production, but he is still evidently reluctant to allow moments when the music is the focus – this would matter less if the walls and other pieces of set could be moved silently, and without stagehands being often visible (at least from on the aisle side stalls) but neither is clearly possible. Kinnear also chooses to show some things unnecessarily – the most obvious being Hermione going into labour. His handling of the chorus could also be improved, though he isn't helped by the work here. He's okay when they are the focus of the musical drama – as in the return of the oracle's ruling – but when they're observers there is insufficient sense of them as individuals, or that Kinnear has thought enough about how each of them are placed and how they should be reacting. My final issue with the production is the overall choice of setting which is some kind of military dictatorship. To my mind this works against the text. It makes both Polixenes and Leontes overly negative figures – most seriously the latter – without really adding corresponding benefits.

But, sadly, it is the work which makes this an unsatisfying evening. The first, and for me biggest, disappointment, is the use of the text. Ryan Wigglesworth has chosen to adapt it himself, and I'm afraid I think he really needed librettist assistance. Far too much of the set text is expository, or simply banal. More surprising, given Echo and Narcissus, to my mind Wigglesworth's setting rarely finds that perfect, pointed marriage of text and music that makes for the greatest opera – that lovely, melancholy phrase “A sad tale's best for winter” for example really goes for nothing here. Of course setting Shakespeare is a particular challenge because there's a kind of natural music to so much of it that you have to try to aid or somehow transcend, but Wigglesworth doesn't succeed often enough.
The pacing of the drama is also a problem. The best operas like the best plays, for me, take you in a dramatic grip and don't let you go. This doesn't necessarily mean that a lot of action has to take place – it can equally well be achieved by taking you into the dilemma of a particular character, but here Wigglesworth's adaptation doesn't sufficiently achieve either. The opera is either plodding with too much exposition and not enough focus on character, or rushing through crucial confrontations so the emotional depths have insufficient time to register. Another aspect of the problem here is the failure to musically differentiate the characters, apart from the distinctions of register, they all sound very much the same vocally. His handling of the chorus is also uneven. The build up to the oracle is finely done, but it makes little dramatic sense to have them one minute threatening revolution and then trooping off despite the fact their beloved queen has so far as they know just died on account of the jealous tyrant.

That said, there are moments when Wigglesworth does cut through to something of the magic of that earlier dramatic cantata. Antigonus's dream at the close of Act One is marvellous. Most of all, there's the conclusion as Hermione and Leontes reach towards each other repeating, hauntingly, the phrase “sixteen winters”. More than any other point in the opera Wigglesworth there finds that magical , moving combination of words and music.

I wanted to love this work, but for me, finally, there were too many places where I just wasn't sufficiently dramatically gripped. For all the quality of the performances, I'm not convinced the company has found a modern masterpiece.

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