Wigglesworth’s Winter’s Tale

28 Feb

I saw the first night of Ryan Wigglesworth’s first opera at ENO on 27th February.  Quite a lot of pressure for a composer and I wonder whether choosing The Winter’s Tale was the right option.

I really question why composers, English composers at any rate, choose to set Shakespeare’s plays as operas.  Unless you are very skilful, like Britten and, to an extent, Ades, it’s hard to make a convincing case that your opera can really co-exist as a viable alternative to the play.  It’s slightly different for foreigners – they can play about with the text and faster and looser with the scenario but, let’s face it, the only really successful operas based on Shakespeare even abroad are by Verdi.

So Ryan Wigglesworth was setting himself a significant challenge in choosing The Winter’s Tale for his first opera.  The scale of it really hit me in the final scene.  How do you set Paulina’s speech in a more memorable way than Judi Dench or Eileen Atkins can speak it?  In Wigglesworth’s case the answer was that you cut the bulk of it.  And also, unless I missed it, Leontes’s “She’s warm” at the end of it.

I don’t mind that.  I think if you’re writing an opera, you have to make it significantly different from the play and use the benefits that the operatic form can bring to telling a story.  The original text shouldn’t be sacred.  What worried me was Wigglesworth didn’t do it enough.  He’s filleted and adapted the text very well.  He sensibly cuts Autolycus and retains much of the flavour of the Bohemia act – indeed I think he improves it: a chorus helps no end at a village feast and I thought that his extended love duet for Florizel and Perdita was really lovely.  But the remainder is almost too faithful.

Let’s take an example in his third act.  Florizel and Perdita arrive, followed by his angry father and all meet in Leontes’s palace.  Doesn’t that cry out for a sextet?  Wigglesworth simply ends the scene.  Having begun the trial scene with a really interesting chorus calling for justice for Hermione (one of the most best parts of the opera), wouldn’t a really good ensemble finale help where you can actually bring in the people and allow conflicting emotions to be heard?  But no, it ends with a bit of a whimper, really.  I got irritated that Wigglesworth seems to be ignoring so much that is special about the form and limiting himself to a post Wagnerian view of opera when Britten has shown that you can do so much more with it.

There are some really good things.  The orchestral accompaniment is strong – I remember a lovely cor anglais solo when Hermione comes to the trial, and you feel a ticking of time going on.  He never drowns the singers and he creates atmosphere.  My main problem was that, for most of the first act, the vocal lines were little more than rather stilted recitative with nothing particularly grateful or interesting to listen to.

ENO did it proud.  Iain Paterson makes an ideally strong, tormented Leontes and I just wish that he had more interesting things to sing.  Sophie Bevan is a sympathetic Hermione and Susan Bickley, predictably, outstanding as Paulina.  Leigh Melrose did what he could with Polixenes and Timothy Robinson did a really beautiful job as Camillo.  Florizel has a much better chance in this opera than in the play and Anthony Gregory sang his music really beautifully.  Samantha Price was a sweet Perdita.  Not a weak link there.

Wigglesworth conducted.  The orchestra played magnificently for him and the chorus was on outstanding form.  Again, it was a committed, passionate performance of the piece.

Rory Kinnear was making his debut as an opera director.  He did a pretty good job in strong sets by Vicki Mortimer.  I wonder how much of the end – leaving Hermione, Leontes and Perdita together was his and how much Wigglesworth’s. Perhaps the continual moving of the sets was a bit fussy but overall it was a clear, strong reading of the piece.

Do I want to see it again?  If I’m honest, not really.  It doesn’t provide a viable alternative to the play, but there’s enough in here to make me want to see another opera by Wigglesworth.

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