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The Winter's Tale, English National Opera | reviews, news & interviews

The Winter's Tale, English National Opera

The Winter's Tale, English National Opera

Concentrated if limited new Shakespeare opera elevated by cast and direction

Iain Paterson's Leontes obdurate to the pleas of Sophie Bevan's Hermione as Ellie Isherwood's attendant and Susan Bickley's Paulina look onAll images by Johan Persson

After a Royal Opera performance of Birtwistle's The Minotaur, a friend spotted Hans Werner Henze in the foyer and had the temerity to ask that annoying question "What did you think?" "Very competent and extremely well performed," came the reply.

Which is the measure of Ryan Wigglesworth's Shakespeare adaptation at ENO. Every UK premiere of a new British opera can be sure of one thing -  a first-rate cast of English-speaking singers. Perhaps the real surprise here was the debut of that great actor Rory Kinnear as a director: clear and sure-footed throughout.

Clarity is a quality, too, of Wigglesworth's score. His libretto, certainly, is a masterly job of Shakespearean compression, some 20 pages of text telescoping many sentiments but keeping some of the most poetically hard-hitting lines as we move from the harsh, wintry kingdom of Leontes to the spring fairy-tale of Polixenes's Bohemia 16 years later and back to reckoning and recognition. But always beware a composer who talks of "taking on a sound-world". Timbre and colour are vital components, of course, but when they're foregrounded at the expense of variety in musical and harmonic language or careful dramatic delineation of various characters, the result is bound to be limited. This is a parallel if not aurally similar world to George Benjamin's hugely over-rated Written on Skin, fascinating in its instrumental colour but low on dramatic pace (though in this case at least the structure is dictated by Shakespeare).Iain Paterson in The Winter's TaleWigglesworth the Second - as we have to call him now that his namesake Mark Wigglesworth has left the ENO's Oval Office, though Ryan's conducting seems to have come on since I last heard him and lends conviction to agony - is hampered by his post-Berg-and-Mahler narrowness (and those two composers were always dramatically various and sure-footed, of course, in opera and symphony). One descending figure - think Wozzeck's "Ah, Marie!" - is all you'll take away from Act One: when the stakes are angsty from the start, and remain so for Hermione's brief nursery idyll with Paulina and Mamiilius, there's nowhere for Leontes' motiveless jealousy to go. Iain Paterson (pictured above with Timothy Robinson, left, as Camillo) conveys it with marvellous economy and bleakness, but the vocal lines, as in Adès, are unrewarding. There's some half-effective stuff for the chorus, shouting justice for the maligned Hermione and results from Apollo's oracle, but the orchestral interludes are unvaried in their tortuousness.

The real test was going to be whether Wigglesworth could conjure a different world for Hermione's and Leontes's teenage daughter as Bohemian shepherdess and her wooing by a disguised Prince Florizel. He doesn't, in terms of musical language, even if the sounds are more ethereal. Samantha Price and Anthony Gregory (pictured below with the ENO Chorus) charm with very limited material; I suppose it's a mercy we don't get a "hey nonny nonny" divertissement, but this is where a popular, mood-sensitive composer like Joby Talbot, in his music for the Royal Ballet's fitfully very effective take on The Winter's Tale, can give us all the relief we need. Once again, when Polixenes' spoken explosion at his son's behaviour arrives - and it's vehemently delivered by the ever committed Leigh Melrose - it has no real contrasts to fight against.Samantha Price and Anthony Gregory in ENO's The Winter's TaleBack in "Sicilia", Wigglesworth does capture the glacial strangeness of the crucial Hermione-as-statue scene; Susan Bickley as Paulina at last gets a chance to exercise her formidable presence and authority, while Sophie Bevan's high-line act - again, under-engaged in Act One - caps the miracle. Where Wigglesworth excels is in stripping down orchestral textures so that one or two solo instruments or two - clarinets, a double-bass with Leontes, a ravishing flute solo - focus the magic, But the denouement would have been so much more effective if it came out of contrasts.

That said, Kinnear - whose programme article is much more flavoursome than Wigglesworth's - never puts a foot wrong, and if his Bohemian scene, over-compressed in the opera, doesn't go wild on vernal contrast, that's in keeping with the same-y musical style. Leontes is a bemedalled dictator in a neoclassical hall of statues - that keeps the Apollo references and the mythmaking pertinent - while Polixenes seems bent on similar autocracy over the seas. Kinnear doesn't labour the point he makes in the programme about "a capricious ruler, easily provoked, fatally proud, appalling in his treatment of women, ignorant of the natural world, quick to throw up barriers between his own and a neighbouring country", but the thought does enter our heads.

Kinnear is wrong about one thing in that note: there is another "major operatic version" of The Winter's Tale, Philippe Boesmans', preserved in a fine recording from Brussels' La Monnaie conducted by Antonio Pappano. A worthier candidate for his attentions, perhaps; but that said, this will certainly merit at least one revival by virtue of its fine team and a story simply if monotonously told. Next, though, let Kinnear loose on the other Shakespearean romances for which he declares his special love: this is one actor who really does have the objectivity and the style to be a top director.

This will certainly merit at least one revival by virtue of its fine team and a story simply if monotonously told


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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What a completely wrong-headed and stupid review! David Nice is beyond a joke. He should talk to the cast and find out what they think of this wonderful piece. Go and see and hear it - more than once. I promise you it is worth it.

Respectfully, David has written a 4-star review and found so much to celebrate and enjoy about the show. His detailed and reasoned analysis deserves more than to be written off simply as "stupid". This should surely be an opportunity for an interesting discussion and debate, rather than a slanging match.

Respect is not a word I associate with David Nice. His own preview of the ENO season contained the following: I wouldn't put much money on Ryan Wigglesworth's The Winter's Tale from the few full-scale works of his I've heard - and when I saw him conduct the BBC Symphony Orchestra, he was the second worst non-maestro I've seen there or anywhere else (the worst has to be China-approved Long Yu). How ironic when he bears the same surname as Mighty Mark, one of the world's BEST conductors. I hope, of course, for better on both RW fronts. Respect for the five years work that went into this composition? Respect for the hard work and enthusiasm of the wonderful musicians and singers who have dedicated weeks to this production? Having seen the dress rehearsal and the opening night and having talked with the cast who love and value this piece, I was hoping for a responsible and thoughtful review from a website whose purpose is presumably to celebrate and promote the arts. Unfortunately this has not happened and DN has chosen to display only his prejudice and debatable skill as a hatchet jobber. Perhaps I should expect no better from a critic who described me as a 'pipsqueak English Cathedral tenor' in a review of a concert I had not even sung in - but I do expect better. What was the purpose of this review? It was simply a display of critical vanity. Ryan Wigglesworth is the most gifted musician it has been my pleasure to work with in 30 years - he, and your readers, deserve better.

Well, I changed my mind, didn't I, about the conducting at least. And I respected the hard work from all concerned. The rest isn't worth dignifying with a response, though I see there's some score-settling going on - that remark wasn't nice, though you ignore all the praise - and you certainly got your own back with 'worse than a joke'.

As for the other negative commenter below, I would be happy to know what his own 'profound understanding' might be, so that those of us who are too stupid might see the light. Seriously, it's better to answer with a defence rather than insults. And talking about how those involved loved it is no real argument for the end product.

Now I suggest you move on to others who either shared my views or really didn't like what they saw at all.

Thankfully I am not paid to give my opinion of others' work, and I certainly do not think it would be of interest were I to do so. However I do think that public comment carries with it the responsibility of respect, which appears to me at least, to be in short supply in what you write, as incidentally does your willingness to take criticism as well as dish it out.

Respect in commenting means not just pouring scorn but arguing your contrary view, which in my opinion, and - more eloquently expressed - Mark Valencia's below is all that's being requested from you. It seems I ask in vain, so I will, more respectfully than you in your first comment, beg to differ and part company.

Completely agree - DN's profound lack of understanding of what was going on in this extraordinary piece is breathtaking.

I too was at this fine world premiere and enjoyed lots of things about it as did David Nice in his extremely fair review. He did after all give the performance four stars. The singers were in fine vocal form but perhaps struggled to find real singing material to work with. Also there could have been more emotional variety for them to build on but the dedication and work which had gone into making this opera happen could only be admired. When I read David's piece, I found echoes of these thoughts in his review and remembering my own quickfire reaction to some reviews in my day, one perhaps has to take a little time to read and consider before reacting. David is no fool and has vast experience of performances and so perhaps we can learn from or at least think about his erudite comments rather than dismissing them out of hand.

Since I almost always agree with David Nice about performances I have attended, I respect his judgment about one I have not.

A healthy debate would be so much more grown-up than these crosspatch insults. I yield to no one in my admiration of Mark Padmore, but he offers no counter to David Nice's detailed review beyond protective partiality and an angry splutter. Likewise John Summers, whose weapon of choice is to be swift and snide and insubstantial. By all means disagree with a writer, but do earn the right to join in by trying to contribute a little substance in return. Without that context your angry words are just ugly noise, however famous you are. And for heaven's sake be courteous. PS There are several significantly more critical reviews of The Winter's Tale out there. Do they inspire your wrath in equal measure, or are you simply taking advantage of the comment facility on TAD? PPS. Apologies for the pseudonym, but I couldn't get the system here to accept my real name, which is Mark Valencia.

The tenor is an ass on this occasion. What was he thinking of?

I don't know the Boesmans, but one earlier operatic version of The Winter's Tale I'd love to hear is Karl Goldmark's.1908 adaptation. On the basis of a staging of Goldmark's Queen of Sheba / Koenigin von Saba two years ago in Freiburg, he's a composer that more than merits rediscovery. But in my dream world, where all the works of art that should exist existed, there would be a version by Mozart and a version by Janacek!

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