The Winter's Tale

Ryan Wigglesworth
English National Opera
The Coliseum

Wigglesworth is a name as synonymous with conducting as composition—and this evening provides an excuse to showcase both his talents.

Composer in residence at ENO in 2012, his opera of The Winter’s Tale has been four years in the making. Five acts condensed to a twenty-page libretto: gone are the rhyming couplets and long soliloquys, bringing a snappy, well-paced plot.

Unlike so many of Shakespeare’s plays, The Winter’s Tale had not been touched by the operatic realm. This is a night of firsts: the first operatic interpretation, Wigglesworth’s first opera and Rory Kinnear’s directorial debut. It seems Kinnear can bring as much to a performance working in the wings as he does front and centre. A very impressive directorial debut.

Vicky Mortimer’s revolving marble set places the action in a fishbowl, the regular passers by peering into the Royal Lives, camera bulbs flashing outside the windows. In this luxurious fort, the action concerns Leontes' (Iain Paterson) insane jealousy—ignoring all who advise him of the Queen’s fidelity.

The inevitable tragic outcome to Leontes’ rage grips us throughout act one. Onstage, the action hurtles towards the impending disaster, echoed by motifs in the orchestra. A piercing oboe solo seems to bring the winter's chill to the proceedings and the ominous sonorities are echoed by the cold marble statues onstage.

Wigglesworth builds up layered chords and percussive rhythmic textures, giving the vocal parts prominence and allowing the story to be truly audible. There is room for the orchestra to play a larger part in sculpting the action—the orchestral writing feels largely an accompaniment which gives us a beautiful balance, but could have more of it’s own character.

Towards the end of the first act, I am ready for more variation in Wigglesworth’s composition style, but post-interval we have moved to hot Bohemia and a much-needed change of pace. Here, Perdita and Florizel's romance and courtship are the priority, the heady days of young love. Dancing and drinking brings a welcome levity before once more tragedy strikes: Florizel is disinherited, cut off for courting a simple sheperdhess.

It is the cast who really shine, with the women sparkling most brightly. Sophie Bevan is radiant as Hermione; naturally buoyant and charming as the Queen, she retains just the right level of pride and self control in the face of Leontes’ impassioned accusations. As Hermione passes away before the interval, the curtain rises on another star performance from Samantha Price (Perdita), her rich and vibrant voice coupled with a youth and vitality which makes her ideal for the role.

Iain Paterson (Leontes) brings to life this brooding, troubled despot. His height adds an extra layer of intimidation when coupled with the petite Bevan. Uniformly, each singer on stage deserves praise for a strong performance.

Reviewer: Louise Lewis