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Phil Willmott

Review: THE WINTER'S TALE. E.N.O at the Coliseum

The Winter's Tale - English National Opera Someone must really like Ryan Wigglesworth at English National Opera (E.N.O) He's been appointed composer in residence at this major international opera house despite the fact that he's only ever composed a song cycle before.

Those few songs must have been amazing because on the strength of it they have committed to a full scale production of his first opera and this week you can see the results at the company's home, the massive Coliseum Theatre, directed by celebrated actor Rory Kinnear who's also never staged anything before. It's also one of the first productions overseen by Daniel Kramer, the E.N.O's new Artistic Director, who, similarly, has never Artistic Directed anywhere before.

Well done lads! The audacity has kind of paid off in that the resulting production, A WINTER'S TALE, isn't embarrassing. It's just a bit dull. Certainly not the game-changing flash of maverick young talent we might have hoped for from these audacious appointees.

In its original form Shakespeare's epic take of royal and rural rage, romance, reconciliation and redemption begins with a jealous king persecuting his pregnant wife for an affair with his best friend that never happened. The queen is presumed dead and the baby is spirited away to safety where she grows up, with no knowledge of her history, to fall in love with the son of that same friend who was falsely accused. Her future father in law is furious at his son's lowly choice of bride and pursues the fleeing couple to the court where she was born. There a magical reconciliation takes place which is one of the most beautiful scenes ever written.

It can take over three hours to perform the original play in all its psychological and tonal complexity. Wigglesworth rattles through the same plot in under two, mostly by cutting the clown characters, which is a blessing, but unfortunately the jealousy sub plot, undiluted by comic relief, ends up feeling over exposed. The king's sudden and violent suspicions have always been hard to explain, in this version changes of hearts and minds happen so swiftly everyone seems schizophrenic.

Shakespeare's poetry is replaced by Wigglesworth's terse dialogue set to his own music. There's tubular bells to remind us of the redemptive power of time in the play and harp flurries inject the score with brief moments of panto fairy dust, but otherwise there's little to get the heart racing. This is surprising in a story that's fuelled by rage and joy, although I'll admit melody-less contemporary opera seldom speaks to me. If it's your cup of tea you may find Wigglesworth's composition more expressive than I did.

The creative team have set the action in a contemporary, possibly Eastern European, context. It's an idea that doesn't really go anywhere and drains magic and romance from proceedings, on an ugly looking rotating set that aspires to be a nifty box of tricks but ends up seeming clunky.

Wigglesworth also conducts the orchestra (he'll definitely need a holiday once this is all over) and the singers, many of whom are also new talent nurtured by the company, are in good voice.

Iain Paterson is an prepossessing jealous ruler but has a big bass voice that rumbles away masterfully through a score that never allows him enough fireworks to suggest the necessary soaring, irrational anger. He does however make the most of Wigglesworth's transition from being a bit shouty to the melancholy of regret. Award winning Sophie Bevan was really expressive and brought a richness to the role of the wronged queen which really engaged us. The performance of the night came from Leigh Melrose as the falsely accused friend and king of neighbouring Bohemia. His response to his son's disobedience provided the only moment of real and terrifying rage.

Not every new piece can be as revolutionary as THE RITE OF SPRING of course but I was hoping for something just a little more daring from such a team, something that would set the agenda for a new wave of music theatre for their generation.

Go with less expectations and you'll certainly have a good evening of fleet footed, if unremarkable, new opera.

The Winter's Tale - ENO