According to the statistics, there are more operas based on Shakespeare than on the work of any other single writer – a clear case of composers following the money. And the catalogue has just been increased by one more: an adaptation of The Winter’s Tale, which seemed from its world premiere at ENO to have absorbed so many of the lessons of past Shakespeare settings that it ran with the impressive smoothness of precision engineering.
The composer was Ryan Wigglesworth, a rising star of contemporary music who has a diverse career as both an academic and conductor, thus keeping his creative output small. But almost every piece he’s written has applied intelligence and craft to ideas that have theatrical potential. And although this new opera is his first, it arrives fully formed, re-telling Shakespeare’s pantomime-like Tale of lives destroyed by jealousy with a clarity and sense of purpose that discards whatever isn’t central to the story.
Transparent orchestrations keep the words unusually audible. And everything about it suggests that Wigglesworth really knows what he’s doing as an opera composer, with a sound and style that successfully places him in the broad tradition running from Alban Berg through to Benjamin Britten.
But there is a problem – that this crafted music is too well behaved to force itself into your heart. There’s magic in the staging – a directorial debut by the actor Rory Kinnear that’s done with such intelligence and style that it feels more akin to a RSC production with an awful lot of singing than a standard ENO show.
But the singing tends towards the functional: as with so much contemporary opera, it’s the orchestra that claims the focus. And there’s not much variation of pace, which in the first act is pedestrian: something Wigglesworth could easily address, as he himself conducts the show.
One other possible concern to Shakespearians is that the process of reduction – which is inevitable when you turn spoken drama into music – makes for a partial reading of a multi-layered text. The Winter’s Tale resists neat labelling and is (at least in part) a comedy. But here, the laughs – and the entire role of Autolycus – are dropped, to leave a darker opera than you would have expected.
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