The Winter’s Tale, English National Opera, ENO, London Coliseum, February 2017

Nearly three years ago the Royal Ballet put Winter’s Tale on the ballet stage, and now it’s the opera’s turn. In a remarkable compression of Shakespeare’s five acts to an hour and forty minutes of music and drama, composer Ryan Wigglesworth has created a score that moves from the sparest flicker of passing time to a revelation of the play’s principal dramatic moments, reflecting the sixteen year period of renewal and towards the end a sense of wonder that promises redemption.

Hermione, Leontes and their son, all images ENO/ Johan Persson

This subtle recreation of the drama contrasts musical power with tranquillity, helped by the theatrical magic of Rory Kinnear’s staging as the Sicilian court breaks apart at the end of Act I and returns to wholeness at the end. The silent movements of Leontes’ and Hermione’s young son, and the unexpected transformation at the start of Act III, help concentrate the mind on moments of emotional truth and the play of time on our perception of reality. In Vicki Mortimer’s sets the motion of the great circular arcs of Leontes’ palace help contrast the king’s self-absorbed intensity and subsequent jealousy with the openness of a world outside, and Moritz Junge’s military costumes enhance the impression of an autocratic ruler unable to conquer his obsession.

Polixenes and Leontes

Although theatre directors often have difficulty adapting to the operatic stage, Rory Kinnear’s work with the composer has created a marvellous unity of staging and musical composition.

End of Act I

Fine movement and singing from the chorus added to the excellent vocal characterisations of the principal roles, headed by Iain Paterson as Leontes. His brooding presence and firm delivery lent the whole opera a strong centre of gravity, and his unjustified accusation during the dramatic high point of Hermione’s trial was musically reminiscent of a scene in Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd (where Paterson himself played Mr Redburn). To the role of Hermione herself, Sophie Bevan brought emotional commitment and notable power as she comes to life at the end. Leigh Melrose made a hugely forceful Polixenes, friend and enemy to Leontes’, particularly in Act II as he condemns the finely sung Florizel of Anthony Gregory. As Florizel’s beloved Perdita, Samantha Price exhibited a lovely gentle emotion, and as the two of them flee to Sicilia at the end of that act, the music swells with youthful energy, anxiety and hope. As the faithful Paulina, Susan Bickley gave a beautifully nuanced performance, with magic in her voice at the final unveiling of the statue, and I loved the musical purity as the main characters enter for this final scene.

Florizel and Perdita in Act II

This magical production, with the storm-tossed ship from Sicilia to Bohemia appearing high on the stage, and Ryan Wigglesworth conducting his own score, created a compelling unity of music and drama that gives a huge injection of creativity to help English National Opera’s claim on continued support from those holding the purse strings.

Performances continue on various dates until March 14 — for details click here.

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