Shakespeare and Opera: Bringing Chilling Music to 'The Winter's Tale'

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During the current residency of the Royal Shakespeare Company in New York (co-presented by the Lincoln Center Festival and Park Avenue Armory in association with Ohio State University) audiences have seen this troupe in five different plays: As You Like It; Julius Caesar; King Lear; Romeo and Juliet; and The Winter’s Tale. It is this last one that most caught my attention for the simple reason that I have never seen it performed.

Because I have been doing a series of posts about Shakespeare and opera, I watched the play for its many theatrical merits but also asked myself whether it had any potential as an opera. The story has considerable humanity and feeling, which would be its strong suit as an opera. There are characters and situations we would care about, as well as moments for big solo arias and ensembles. There would not be too much work for a chorus unless an opera composer chose to add something that is not in the play.

As in most of Shakespeare, there are numerous plots, subplots, asides and diversions in this story. There are many roles for all kinds of actors and onstage musicians. There is blessedly little blood spilled apart from a man being killed by a bear in an amusing bit of stagecraft. Other characters die, or seem to, offstage and their passing is reported to characters onstage. The story veers between drama and potential tragedy on one side with considerable humor on the other. Act One ends in a dark, foreboding way but the play concludes in an improbably happy fashion as a character who has made terrible judgments and actions is given a second chance.

The description I give above would not, on paper, seem to include the makings of an opera. The play is narrative and ruminative. It is set in two very distinct places, a dark and tragic “Sicilia” and a more merry “Bohemia” that seems like Elizabethan England. I think these two settings would require very different tonal palettes in the music, as would the two distinct elements of near-tragedy and near-comedy. A composer such as Verdi would toss away most of the characters and focus mostly on King Leontes of Sicilia and Perdita, the “lost” (hence her name) daughter he does not know.

Leontes believes that his very pregnant queen, Hermione, bears the child of his friend Polixenes, King of Bohemia. Unlike Othello, in which the title character is persuaded by Iago that his loving wife Desdemona is being unfaithful, Leontes comes to his jealous conclusions on his own. Therefore, the motor of this plot line in The Winter’s Tale is more “internal” than the comparable one in Othello. Hermione is banished and Polixenes flees to Bohemia. We learn that Hermione dies and her newborn daughter has been abandoned in the wilderness not far from the famous bear, who does not harm her.

In the first act there is also a scene in which an oracle of Apollo appears, declaring that Hermione is innocent and that Leontes is a tyrant who will die without an heir if his lost child is not found. Now, that scene is operatic, a combination of admonition and dream sequence. Suddenly, Leontes receives news that Mamillius, his young son, has died, and the prospect of his irrational jealousy having set into motion a tragedy becomes very real. 

The second act is sixteen years later and is about Perdita, thought to be a shepherd girl loved by a young man, Florizel, who is a prince in disguise and none other than the son of King Polixenes. Set in bucolic Bohemia, there are humorous smaller characters including shepherds and musicians. All kinds of surprises are revealed, the action shifts back to Sicilia for a concluding scene in which grieving King Leontes learns of his daughter, that she loves the son of his presumed rival, and that there is a statue that commemorates the dead Hermione. Miraculously, the statue gradually comes to life (very operatic!) and all is resolved. There are even more details and interesting characters, but an opera composer would leave them out.

Forgotten Operatic Adaptations

Because I had never heard of an opera based on The Winter’s Tale, I assumed that there was not one. Wrong! I thought Rossini’s Ermione might be about Hermione, but it is not. Rather, it seems that Max Bruch wrote an opera, Hermione, that is about this play. Then there is an opera about Perdita composed by the now-forgotten Carlo Emanuele di Barbieri (Genoa 1822-1867) who wrote his opera in German in 1865 as Perdita, ein Wintermärchen (“Perdita, A Winter’s Tale”) which had its premiere in Leipzig.

It turns out that there is indeed a ninety-minute opera called The Winter’s Tale (1974), by John Harbison (1938-) that premiered in San Francisco in 1979 and had a performance in Boston in 2009. If I can find any recording of it, I would love to hear or see it. In his composer’s note, Harbison said that “the opera is closer to Greek drama than it is to Shakespeare.” Later, he says, “The opera is by no means a transcription of Shakespeare’s play, and many of the play’s most significant aspects are not present. They are replaced by elements especially suitable to opera, and those elements that suggest the irrational, the symbolic, and the magical are greatly enhanced by the melodic and harmonic life of the opera.”

And I have discovered that Philippe Boesmans (1936-) wrote an opera based on this play to a German libretto that was performed in Lyon.  Here is a scene from the first act, a conversation between Camillo, servant to Leontes, and Polixenes. Camillo has been sent to kill Polixenes but decides, instead to align himself with the man he was ordered to murder.

There are only two other operas I know with bears. Can you name them? (I will provide the answers on Monday, August 8.) Which leads me to a couple of fantasy questions of my own: Would the bear in an opera of The Winter’s Tale have a singing part? If so, what voice would you give it?

Photo: Greg Hicks (Leontes) and Kelly Hunter (Hermione) in the Royal Shakespeare Company's The Winter's Tale