I should confess I was hoping for a more modern text as a vehicle for acclaimed composer Ryan Wigglesworth’s debut opera, and considered the choice of Shakespeare’s late problem play as inauspicious. But in this world premiere from the English National Opera (ENO), the composer’s stunning score – combined with fine singing and intelligent direction from Rory Kinnear – produces compelling entertainment.
A feature of ENO’s modus operandi has been to regularly invite non-opera personnel to oversee productions. In this case, acclaimed Shakespearean actor Kinnear brings his sense of theatre to his directorial debut, peopling the stage in natural tableaux and drawing realistic interactions from the cast, not to mention throwing in the odd theatrical coup.
In this modern-dress production the kingdoms of Sicily and Bohemia are late-twentieth-century Eastern European dictatorships, where burly bass-baritone Iain Paterson is an intimidating presence as the insanely jealous King Leontes, whose belief in his wife’s adultery sets events in motion. Baritone Leigh Melrose makes a convincing Polixenes, switching effortlessly from fearful, accused friend to military ruler and angry father, while his lovestruck son Florizel is played with youthful charm by Anthony Gregory.
The female voices shine the most, both in their own right and in contrast to the predominantly deep orchestral textures. As Hermione, soprano Sophie Bevan is the highlight, her perfect intonation soars into the ether as Leontes’ wronged queen; Samantha Price acts convincingly as the shy, lost daughter Perdita, and as the queen’s maidservant Paulina, another mezzo Susan Bickley gives solid dramatic and vocal support.
Vicki Mortimer’s marvellous set design is as simple as it is effective. A circular room with revolving walls that spin and close, then open to reveal the different scene settings, transforming from marbled palace to country pub and even stormy sea – all pleasingly lit by Jon Clark in sympathy with the mood of the action.
Wigglesworth is also in the pit, his consummate conducting showing off the true star of the show – his dazzling score. Comparisons are unfair, but there are echoes of Britten, Strauss and Birtwistle, yet while the tense music is predominantly dark and brooding, it always remains on the border of consonance, its sparseness giving space for the singers to demonstrate their clear enunciation.
It’s a splendid operatic debut, the ambiguous and muted ending clearly a fault with the Bard and not the composer.