Philippe Boesmans - Wintermärchen
La Monnaie-De Munt, 1999
Antonio Pappano, Luc Bondy, Dale Duesing, Susan Chilcott, Anthony Rolfe Johnson, Franz-Josef Selig, Cornelia Kallisch, Juha Kotilainen, Kris Dane, Johanne Saunier, Heinz Zednik
As one of Shakespeare's late romances and believed to have been only partly written by him, The Winter's Tale - like Cymbeline, The Tempest and Pericles - seems to be designed to draw together a number of familiar dramatic situations and incidents purely for the sake of dramatic entertainment. To broadly and somewhat crudely lump them together, each of them offer variations on banishment, wild storms at sea, lost siblings cast adrift on the tides of fortune, where they meet adventure in foreign lands, only recognising their true inheritance at the end as they are belatedly reconciled into the noble families whose fortunes have since taken dramatic turns.
A Winter's Tale in particular, although it's by no means alone in this, additionally makes use of several heightened otherworldly set-pieces (or miracles, if you like) that would seem to make it a natural for the lyric stage. With a central theme of a jealous father whose foolhardy actions lead to him become estranged from his daughter, it would seem moreover a natural work for Verdi to tackle as an opera (reminiscent as it is of Rigoletto and particularly Simon Boccanegra), but although a great admirer of the playwright and one of the greatest opera composers of Shakespeare (Otello, Macbeth and Falstaff all being truly great works), I'm not aware of Verdi ever expressing an interest in The Winter's Tale or even being familiar with this particular work.
It's a work nonetheless that would certainly have presented some challenges, even to the great composer that late Verdi was, if we are to judge from the imperfections of Simon Boccanegra. Dutch composer Philippe Boesmans, working with director Luc Bondy, finds a way to draw together some of the more incongruous dramatic elements of The Winter's Tale in their 1999 collaboration on its operatic adaptation, Wintermärchen. Despite the high melodrama, or more likely in some ways due to it, The Winter's Tale carries a strong emotional and psychological undercurrent to it, one that is so expertly and movingly handled at the conclusion that it invites one to overlook the dramatic contrivance elsewhere.
Like almost all adaptations of Shakespeare to the opera, cuts are inevitable and much of the poetry is lost from the original work, but Luc Bondy and Marie-Louise Bischofberger's libretto condenses the drama fairly well for Boesman's four-act opera. If the moral question explored in the work on the subject of jealousy is pushed somewhat to extremes - both in the original drama and the opera - the impact of such behaviour on others is just as important, and similarly pushed to extremes. Luc Bondy's staging of the work for La Monnaie consequently attempts to play the drama as naturalistically as is possible (barring the obvious otherworldly interventions), allowing the staging to take on some of the more melodramatic aspects.
Although the first two acts of the drama take place in Sicily then, the kingdom of King Leontes is depicted as a dark and snowy landscape for the winter's tale that is to take place. A huge wall of ice symbolises the sudden insane jealousy that drives Leontes to attempt to have his friend Polixenes poisoned in the belief that he has had an affair with the Queen and is somehow responsible for her pregnancy. As Leontes watches them from behind the wall, the block of ice becomes an enormous barrier that chills his heart, and separates him from the truth that everyone else around him can see. The close of this first half of the drama even successfully stages the trial of Hermione and brings in the judgement from Delphi as a direct message from Apollo, Boesman's post-Wagnerian orchestration capturing all the impact of the consequences that follow.
By way of contrast, both Bondy and Boesmans take a very different spin on the second half of the work that mainly takes place sixteen years later in Bohemia. Leontes' abandoned daughter has been raised by a shepherd and grown up with the name Perdita unaware of her heritage. Engaged to Prince of Bohemia, against the wishes of his father Polixenes, the mute Perdita and Florizel's romance takes place in what looks like a fenced-in basketball court in a New York backstreet alley, populated by 'bohemian" musicians, pickpockets and street dancers. Boesmans score changes considerably, with most of Act III performed in an avant-jazz style by the group Aka Moon. Florizel is not an opera singer either, but sings more like a pop musician. The language changes too, with English spoken in 'Bohemia' in contrast to the 'court language' German of the first two Acts in Sicily.
The drama and the overall tone however still adheres closely to Shakespeare's play, and in any case it's not really any less naturalistic or realistic than Shakespeare's controversial depiction of the exiles being washed up by a storm on the landlocked shores of Bohemia. The inconsistencies and the otherworldly interventions that overturn the tragic developments of The Winter's Tale for the warmer, happy ending of Leontes being reunited not only with Perdita but also with the dead Queen Hermione are likewise less important than the overall necessity of providing a satisfying conclusion that will warm the hearts of the audience. Boesmans and Bondy carry that off well, particularly in the handling of Hermione's statue coming to life. Holding to the consistency of Wintermärchen's characterisation, the Queen, frozen in time in the wall of ice, breaks through it, restored to life at the return of her daughter.
If there's room to bring a measure of realism to the experiences of the characters in The Winter's Tale through the performances of a good cast, the scoring for the voices for Wintermärchen and the quality of the singing performances can likewise bring out the very real sentiments that lies behind all the drama. This recording of the 1999 performance of the work at La Monnaie, conducted by Antonio Pappano - revived on-line by ARTE in tribute to the recent death of Luc Bondy - benefits from exceptional singing and dramatic performances, particularly from Dale Duesing as Leontes and Susan Chilcott as Hermione. Hermoine's despair at the charges brought against her in Act II are particularly heartfelt in how the scene is scored and in how well it is performed, but Leontes likewise is a challenging role with a wide emotional range to get across. A young Franz-Josef Selig also makes a strong impression here as Camillo, with a particulrly lovely lament for his home at the opening of Act III.
Links: ARTE Concert, La Monnaie