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BWW Review: THE WINTER'S TALE, London Coliseum

If a sad tale really is best for winter, then we've certainly been blessed this year. For months the news has croaked out its nightly stories, each blacker than the one before, and though blossom is already on the trees there's not been so much as a whiff of a happy ending. Certainly not at English National Opera, where composer Ryan Wigglesworth and director Rory Kinnear have recut Shakespeare's play into something even more darkly ambiguous than its source.

Walls encircle the marble halls of Sicilia, marshalled by statues of past military greats, while outside protestors gather. Hermione (Sophie Bevan), wronged by her king, is a new People's Princess - a lone figure of feminine softness in this man's world of weapons and warfare. Something has gone badly wrong here, even before the accusations start flying, and Wigglesworth's score picks through the emotional debris with meticulous, surgical care.

What's most striking about this double debut - Kinnear's first production as a director and Wigglesworth's first opera - is its polish. There's scarcely a misstep in this carefully crafted piece of music-theatre, which distils Shakespeare's drama down to miraculous brevity, trimming the fat of the poetry without losing its psychological sinew.

Music creeps into the gaps, filling them with tension. A snare drum twitches like a vein at the temple of the jealous Leontes, a flutter-tongued flute insinuates. But while the score suggests and implies, describes and narrates, it never quite seems able to throw caution to the wind and actually feel.

Memories of Britten, Berg and Ades haunt a score that has an airy spaciousness to it, a chamber clarity that lets voices speak easily through. A hollowed-out middle register strips bloom from the sound, focusing the palette around the steel greys and metallics of clarinet, percussion and low brass. Tyranny has no tunes, and Wigglesworth's Sicilia never fully unbends into song. It sets up an expectation, a hope, for the rival scenes in Bohemia - home to shepherds and dancing, youth and love.

But these are denied. In this stern rewriting, Bohemia becomes a mere interlude rather than a dramatic equal-and-opposite. Gone is the comic subplot, gone any hope of sunshine, and in their place we have another military dictatorship, set to music that is a variation of Sicilia's. Joy remains perpetually deferred, kept at a distance; even the surging chorus of joy that accompanies Perdita's homecoming is sung offstage - an echo of a celebration rather than a celebration itself.

The best cast we've seen all season at ENO is a remarkably homogenous, all-British affair - another argument, surely, against the transatlantic imports that have littered previous productions. Iain Paterson is a great bear of a Leontes (the only bear, incidentally, that makes it into this Shakespearean rewrite), heavy with anger, his voice rich with all the colour drained from his military world.

Susan Bickley pricks his conscience as a powerful Paulina, Sophie Bevan's Hermione sings her Act I closing aria with radiant intensity, and Neal Davies is luxury casting as the luckless Antigonus. But it's young lovers Florizel (Anthony Gregory) and Perdita (Samantha Price) who find the missing joy in this musical world - she blooming and vital, he sincere, singing Wigglesworth's angular lines with lieder-like ease and lyricism.

Between Kinnear's unerring direction, Vicki Mortimer's efficient designs and a superb cast, this classy show is everything that ENO is and should be about - a celebration of British talent at its best. Whether the opera will find a foothold in the repertoire remains to be seen, but there can be no doubt that Wigglesworth himself is here to stay. Bring on the next project.

The Winter's Tale is at the London Coliseum until 14 March

Picture Credit: Johann Persson

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