March 4, 2017, by Peter Kirwan
The Winter’s Tale (English National Opera) @ London Coliseum
I’ll be upfront that I am not an opera aficionado; if I remember rightly, the last opera I saw was The Marriage of Figaro about a decade ago in Birmingham. But The Winter’s Tale is a play close to my heart, and so a new opera version by Ryan Wigglesworth, directed by Rory Kinnear in his directorial debut, was too tempting an opportunity to miss. This performance, only the opera’s second, moved in fits and starts, combining moments of spectacular and interpretive brilliance with some bizarre choices and a frequently formless score. One hopes that it grows, though I suspect that the flaws are too structurally ingrained for redress at this stage.
The opera wais in three acts, and while its language regularly borrowed from Shakespeare, the libretto was lean and efficient, clocking in at barely 100 minutes (discounting an eternal interval). Wigglesworth and Kinnear’s interest was in Leontes and Sicilia; the first act included almost all of the events of the first three acts of the play, with cuts made here and there largely to reduce the roles of supporting characters (the Paulina/Emilia scene was cut; no reference was made to Antigonus and Paulina’s marriage). The main change came immediately before the interval as Antigonus dumped Perdita on the coast of Bohemia from his sinking boat; the bear was conspicuously absent.
It was in the second half that the trimming really showed. The opera rattled through Bohemia in about twenty minutes: Autolycus, the Clown, Mopsa and Dorcas were all cut and the Shepherd reduced significantly, boiling the plot down to the barest bones of Florizel and Perdita’s engagement and Polixenes’ displeasure. The third act was also only twenty minutes long, and was the production’s most disappointing aspect by far, giving almost no time to the twin discoveries of Perdita and Hermione. In the former’s case, the cutting left the story near-incoherent; with no fardel (or even any witnesses to Perdita’s discovery, as the Shepherd didn’t come to Sicilia), it was left to Leontes to suddenly, in a moment of inspiration, announce ‘My daughter’ to Perdita, to a weirdly sinister underscore. An unsettled Perdita later ran away from the newly awakened Hermione, leading to a final reunion between mother, father and daughter alone outside the palace.
The production was overwhelmingly dominated by Iain Paterson’s Leontes in an entirely uninspired performance. Paterson can sing, but his bulky Leontes lumbered about the stage with no urgency and disappointingly little presence. He was strongest when alone, singing about his inability to sleep, and in moments dependent on sheer physical threat, such as when he announced that he would burn the baby he was holding immediately and turned towards the fire. He wasn’t helped by a score that sounded, to my untrained and unconditioned ears, without shape. His jealousy, rage, guilt and repentance were not sufficiently distinguished from one another, and his lack of movement rendered the character impotent.
The women were much stronger. Sophie Bevan was outstanding as Hermione as she took Polixenes easily by the arm, played with Mamillius (Zach Roberts, in a silent role that deprived Mamillius of his voice but gave him a striking curly-haired appearance that allowed him to be instantly recognisable when reappearing after his death), and duetted with Leontes in her initial defence and subsequent trial. Her vocal power completely overwhelmed Leontes when he first confronted her, she standing on a window seat and crying out her innocence. This power was revisited in the production’s finest moment, the awakening of the statue, when Hermione’s initial slight movements were suddenly replaced by her belting out ‘Gods, look down!’
The leading trio was rounded out by Susan Bickley as Paulina. Frustratingly, the cutting diminished her role considerably, stripping her of humour and making some of her decisions (such as giving the baby Perdita to the murderous Leontes) utterly unfathomable. Most nonsensically, when Hermione fell, she was kept on stage for ages while two doctors gave her CPR, and Paulina stayed with Leontes to declare what he had lost, rather than following Hermione off-stage to find out if she was actually dead. Her role in supporting Leontes throughout the sixteen years was glossed over, and her appearance in the final act was instead to cast doubt on Florizel and Perdita rather than to force Leontes to reflect on himself. Notwithstanding all this, Bickley was excellent in a reduced role, her entrances and exits in particular allowing for pointed silences which reflected ill on Leontes.
The star of the production, however, was Vicki Mortimer’s set. Two rounded walls on tracks moved almost constantly, revealing a range of environments: a round formal room with windows to the outside and large statues; a court room with huge banner; the beautifully rustic world of Bohemia, with beer festival-style tables constructed from crates and oil drums; the stage on which Hermione’s statue was delivered. The moving walls were unfortunately clunky, however, and too often beautiful stage images (Leontes and Mamillius peering through frosted windows while Hermione gave birth) were disrupted by the scenery creaking and the shadows of stagehands. The architecture was mock-classical, evoking a world of contemporary dictators who have surrounded themselves with art. Leontes wore full military dress uniform, a small dictator who ruled over a discontent Sicilia; in between scenes, we saw protestors gathering outside the palace, throwing bangers and chanting for Hermione’s release. Polixenes, meanwhile, was revealed in Bohemia to be a far-right populist; dressed as a soldier, even in disguise he insisted that the Bohemians give a chest-thumping salute next to a ‘Bohemia Forward’ poster showing him as masculine hero. The context of political unrest and right-wing control was powerful, although the production went exactly nowhere with it, jettisoning all politics to focus on the family in a third act that seemed drawn from an entirely different production.
The main issue with the production was the music, for which I lack appropriate technical terminology, but rarely served as more than an accompaniment. While it was entirely serviceable throughout, the lack of real arias that would have helped better establish the stakes seemed a particularly disappointing choice. There were few themes or motifs apparent to me, just the running on of Leontes’ ramblings. The most effective moments of orchestration came in the introduction of percussion as he began to show signs of greater disquiet, but the interactions between the nobles lacked emphasis or punctuation. The production kicked into a higher gear with the first appearance of the Chorus, who sang a glorious greeting to Apollo’s oracle as it approached the court, icon held high, and the trial scene made great use of Paterson and Bevan in duet. A later chorus scene in Bohemia allowed Florizel and Perdita to dance with one another while the men and women of the Chorus faced off in a mock battle of the sexes, a joyful song and dance that captured the flavour of Bohemia without needing to lengthen it unnecessarily.
Mortimer’s design shone again in the introduction to Bohemia. Following Hermione’s ‘death’, the walls of the set cracked in two in response to Apollo’s anger, the higher half raising off the lower. After the stage was cleared, a boat came in at ceiling level, and the shattered walls of Sicilia became the shifting waves of the stormy seas. Antigonus (Neal Davies) did fine work in these scenes, but the real coup de theatre was one of the sailors turning round to suddenly reveal herself as Hermione, delivering the words of her dream from within the boat. It was she who took the baby off the boat holding it as Antigonus’s boat was pulled away by the storm. At the start of Act 2, the lights revealed Mamillius standing aloft, holding the baby where it had been deposited, then shaking out the bundle to hold a blanket over himself; a second later, it was lowered to reveal the grown-up Perdita. The simple magic trick here was an excellent substitution for Time.
Bohemia was the production’s highlight, with Perdita (Samantha Price) and Florizel (Anthony Gregory) a sweet pair of lovers. This second act was a particular strong showcase for Leigh Melrose as Polixenes who, in a masterly break with form, shouted rather than sung as he revealed himself to his son and threatened Perdita and the Shepherd. The sudden intrusion of spoken word made this the production’s true moment of crisis, and Melrose was a threatening presence throughout Bohemia in opposition to his propaganda posters. Again, it was a shame this wasn’t followed up in a third act that rendered Polixenes (and most of the rest of the cast) completely silent.
What we were left with instead was a simply weird moment in which Leontes realised who Perdita was. The score was ominous, even evil at this point, and Leontes took Perdita by the hand and spun her round while she looked on in confusion and fear. The unsettling tone to the score continued in flat contrast with visual scenes of confetti and celebration in the streets; I have never seen so sombre a set of revelations and reunions. The final scene seemed initially as if it was going to do something quite radical by staging a finale between Perdita and Hermione, separate to everyone else; instead Leontes joined them and the three held hands, casting shadows on a wall. The production belatedly reintroduced Mamillius; a young boy had been seen laying flowers and lighting candles for the dead queen throughout Act 3, but he removed his hood to reveal his mop of curly hair, and ended the production by blowing out his candle. The evocation of Mamillius at the play’s end is so conventional now as to be a cliché, but where the production completely mis-stepped was in making everything in Act 3 scary and uncomfortable. With no chemistry between Leontes and Hermione, no connection between Perdita and Leontes, and music that worked dead against any sense of wonder or awe, the final scenes felt like a necessary wrapping up of plot rather than a coherent part of the production, especially with the political undercurrent completely abandoned.
There was much to enjoy here, then, but the unpleasant music and rushed character development rather spoiled the narrative flow and undercut the opportunities offered by the big set-piece moments. Nonetheless, this was a frequently beautiful new opera, with many solid performances and a stunning set. Even if it squandered some of its potential, it found power in the voices (and silences) of its women and children.