Wintermarchen (‘A Winter’s Tale’), Philippe Boesmans’ third opera, was a huge success (11 sold-out performances) at its first production in Brussels, and at Lyon a few months later. The reasons seem obvious: a strong plot (Shakespeare’s play, skilfully abbreviated and adapted by Luc Bondy, who also directed the premiere) and a musical language which, though ‘modern’ in its angular expressionism (apt for expressing Leontes’ pain, guilt and paranoid jealousy), has plenty of room for tonal reference. Monteverdi is literally quoted and there are oblique but tangible links with Mahler (occasionally) and Strauss (quite often). Gratefully singable lyricism is frequent, as is rich orchestral colour. The other-worldly ‘sea-coast of Bohemia’ evoked in Act 3 is the cue for a dual change of language: from German (chosen because the Belgian Boesmans and the Swiss Bondy are both fluent in it, and because neither could bear to cut Shakespeare’s original) to English, and from Boesmans’ orchestra to the jazz-rock group Aka Moon. They import their own music and provide the (amplified) vocalist who portrays Florizel. So Polixenes’ people are Bohemian in two senses: exotic, new age and not very reputable hippies. Effective, though I cannot feel that either Fabian Fiorini’s music or Kris Dane’s breathy, rather whining voice is adequate to Shakespeare’s poetic Prince.
Boesmans’ own music is stronger, especially in the eloquent lyricism of Hermione’s defence against her husband’s charge of adultery (how passionately Susan Chilcott sings it!) and the mounting warmth of her return to life. In Bondy’s production her ‘statue’ was shown embedded in ice, and nothing is more calculated to melt it than one of Boesmans’ sidelong glances at Strauss. Perdita does not sing, unfortunately (she dances to Aka Moon’s rather anonymous music), but Paulina and Antigonus do, both expressively. Heinz Zednik’s incisiveness and character are invaluable in the invented role of Green (a combination of Shakespearian clown and personified Time), Anthony Rolfe Johnson brings distinction to Polixenes and Dale Duesing in the long and tormented role of Leontes is striking: his stricken solo at the apparent death of Hermione (quiet despair and remorse over grave strings and a poignant solo violin) is perhaps the finest passage in the work.
An accomplished new opera, in short, in an astonishingly assured first performance. Although it has its shallow patches (notably that Third Act) I can imagine it being intensely moving on stage, for which Boesmans has an impressive gift.'