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Joby TALBOT (b.1971)
The Winter’s Tale (2014) [118.00]
Edward Watson (Leontes), Lauren Cuthbertson (Hermione), Federico Bonell (Polixenes), Sarah Lamb (Perdita), Steven McCrae (Florizel), Zenaida Yanowsky (Paulina), Joe Parker (Mamillius), Bennet Garside (Antigonus), Artists of Royal Ballet, Orchestra of the Royal Opera Covent Garden/David Briskin
Directed for the screen by Ross MacGibbon
rec. Royal Opera Covent Garden, 10 April 2014
extras: From page to stage: Perdita, the lost jewel: The music of The Winter’s Tale: cast gallery [15.00]
OPUS ARTE OA1159 DVD/OABD7157D Blu-ray [133.00]

The plays of Shakespeare have over the years attracted a great many composers to undertake operatic treatments, with varying degrees of success. Ballets on the same subjects have been thin on the ground with only one score specifically composed for dance – Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet – managing to establish itself in the general repertoire. The reason is perhaps not too far to seek. Shakespeare frequently took the outlines of his plots from other sources – from history, or from a wide variety of other mythological tales and poetic treatments – and his principal contribution to these was the provision of language that matched the scale of his subject matter. When these words are eliminated, as is inevitably the case in ballet, much of the Shakespearean atmosphere is thereby lost.

The Winter’s Tale has a very convoluted plot, and – as Lytton Strachey pointed out over a century ago – a highly discursive scenario which defies logic and common sense at many points. The choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, in an interview included in the programme booklet with this release, notes that when he saw the play once he was “bored out of his mind”. He was only convinced by Nicholas Hytner that it had balletic possibilities although even the latter conceded that Shakespeare “had got a little bit lazy” at the time of writing it. Nonetheless Wheeldon decided, when he was commissioned to create a new full-length ballet for the Royal Opera to follow up his enormously successful Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (also with music by Joby Talbot). The plan was devise a stage version of The Winter’s Tale featuring many of the same dancers as in Alice. The result is, perhaps inevitably, a somewhat mixed success.

Much of Shakespeare’s plot is set up in the first three Acts of the play, here condensed into an extended opening Act in multiple scenes. In the Fourth Act of his play the author created an extended divertissement for the peasant characters in Bohemia which provided an opportunity for music and song. This left the remainder of the action to be swept up rather unconvincingly in Act Five. Here the scenario extends the scenes of peasant dancing to a considerable length. Some convincing glosses are added to the final Act — now Act Three of the ballet — to give a greater degree of dramatic point to the frankly absurd conclusion of the play. The main problem with The Winter’s Tale in whatever form, however, is the lack of characters who are more than archetypes. Only the jealous King Leontes — a sort of Othello figure racked by unmotivated suspicions about his wife’s fidelity — undergoes any sort of spiritual or emotional development. Even he hardly seems to deserve the happy ending with which the playwright has rewarded him. The remainder – the young lovers, the wronged wife, the sympathetic companion, and the clownish shepherds – are ciphers straight out of stock. They never for a moment come to life even through the words that Shakespeare gives them to speak. A comparison with other late Shakespeare texts such as Cymbeline, The two noble kinsmen or Pericles only serves to reinforce the impression that the poet was running out of steam, relying frequently on collaborators to provide pegs on which he could hang his verses without bothering himself too much about their motivation. So perhaps a musical setting, one might think, could do a great deal for the plot.

Well, unfortunately only up to a point. In a discussion provided among the extras for this DVD, Joby Talbot notes the fact that the music for the three Acts of the ballet are very different from each other in mood and impression. That is certainly true. For the extended scenes of pastoral merrymaking in Act Two he makes extensive use of a stage band consisting of bansuri (a sort of natural flute), dulcimer, accordion and percussion. Although the skilled players are visible on stage throughout, the need for their musical contributions to be audible leads the composer into an almost chamber style of orchestration which only rarely rises to any kind of climax. Tchaikovsky in The Nutcracker resolved the similar problem of providing contrast during the course of a long series of dances without any relevance to the overarching plot by the adoption of varying national styles and orchestral effects. Here the general impression is simply that the whole scene goes on for too long, with only a brief dramatic episode at the end as the two young lovers flee by boat to break the long sequence of (admittedly charming) dances. Incidentally much fun has been made over Shakespeare’s provision of Bohemia with a sea coast in this play. I suspect his general intention was to employ the term ‘Bohemia’ not in a geographical sense, but to imply a setting of rustic simplicity — as, for example, my 1897 English-language score of Puccini describes his opera confusingly as The Bohemians.

By comparison the scoring of the first and last Acts is much more meaty, with plenty of contrast and sometimes thrilling use of the full orchestra. Talbot adopts an eminently approachable musical style here which closely resembles Stravinsky in The Firebird or Bliss in Checkmate. One can also detect the influence of Ravel, Prokofiev and even Rimsky-Korsakov. What is lacking however is any really memorable thematic material. Rather too often Talbot falls back on a series of reiterated rhythmic patterns which conjure up the atmosphere of John Adams’s Nixon in China. Although this serves to throw into higher relief the more modern music which he writes for the jealous Leontes – one can feel the character’s descent into madness more tellingly when it is contrasted against the more tonally orientated music elsewhere. The sheer superfluity of melody which one finds in Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet is never apparent. At the end of Act One, when Leontes begins to realise the depths to which his jealousy has driven him, Talbot cuts back the orchestra to a solo piano. This may serve to highlight by means of understatement the bleakness of the situation which seems to me to cry out for a more urgent orchestral engagement such as we find at the opening of Act Three. Mind you, the string playing at these moments often sounds undesirably thin, with a flute echo of one line sounding louder and more prominent than the massed violins which precede it. If this was intentional, it was a mistake. Some of these emotional lines need to generate more richness of sound.

Edward Watson in the role of Leontes manages, without the use of words, to bring out the full horror of the character’s situation even when sometimes this is not reflected in his music. Otherwise the dancers convey their stereotypical roles well and with considerable technical expertise. Zenaida Yanowsky as Pauline does rather more than that, making much more than Shakespeare does of the role of the confidante even when this leads her into some frankly ungainly poses. The scenery by Bob Crowley is really very good indeed, making considerable use of projection to advance the plot and providing strikingly realistic stage pictures as can be seen from the illustration on the cover of the box. However the treatment of probably the most famous line in the play, the stage direction “exit pursued by a bear”, is rather feeble, with the face of a bear briefly projected onto a screen no substitute for what would surely even in Shakespeare’s time have been an acrobat dressed in a bearskin. Surely, too, the tree which dominates the stage in Act Two is rather too close to that provided by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle for his Bayreuth Tristan for comfort.

The box has been handsomely prepared and presented. The set I was sent for review describes itself as a “special edition” and contains eight postcards depicting scenes from the ballet. However the lack of any separation of tracks for individual scenes, or even between Acts, is a major disadvantage for anyone wishing simply to view selections from the ballet rather than the whole. David Briskin should really have waited for the applause to die down before beginning the music again when the audience (twice) interrupts the performance to show their appreciation for individual ‘numbers’ in Act Two. They are rightly enthusiastic at the end, however, and the brief extras provided help to flesh out a generally favourable impression. In the final analysis, though, I cannot see this score replicating the deserved success of Talbot and Wheeldon’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, a magnificent achievement which I have watched on several occasions with enjoyment since its original television broadcast in 2011. It is still available on DVD, as well as in the form of an orchestral suite which I reviewed for this site in 2013.
 
Paul Corfield Godfrey

Another review (Blu-ray version) ...

In 2011 the Royal Ballet and the National Ballet of Canada commissioned choreographer Christopher Wheeldon and composer Joby Talbot to create a new ballet, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (review). The result was a big popular success, with live relays broadcast to cinema audiences around the world and Covent Garden revivals in 2012 and 2013. Capitalising on that success, in 2014 the same sponsors and artists came up with another newly created ballet - The Winter's Tale, based on Shakespeare's play of the same name.

Others may be, as I was, unfamiliar with the play, but its particular – not to say somewhat peculiar – atmosphere is of crucial importance to this ballet. A brief synopsis of the story's salient points may be useful. King Leontes of Sicilia invites his old friend King Polyxenes of Bohemia to visit him and, during the course of the stay, Leontes's wife Hermione falls pregnant. Leontes unjustifiably imagines that Polyxenes is responsible. He drives his friend away and imprisons his own wife. Queen Hermione dies and Leontes orders her baby daughter to be killed. In Act 2, set 16 years later, we discover that the daughter, Perdita, has in fact survived and grown up as a shepherdess in Bohemia, unaware of her true identity. She becomes engaged to Florizel, whom she believes to be a peasant but who is actually King Polyxenes's son and heir. The outraged Bohemian king orders her death, but she and Florizel escape in a ship headed for Sicilia. Polyxenes sets off in pursuit. In the third and final Act, Perdita and Florizel reach the Sicilian court where King Leontes recognises her as his supposedly murdered daughter. Father and daughter are reconciled and Leontes persuades Polyxenes to accept their children's union. To crown Leontes' joy, he discovers that his supposedly dead wife was, in fact, hidden away by a courtier and still lives. He and his queen are also reconciled.

As that summary makes clear, any Wheeldon/Talbot ballet based on The Winter's Tale would inevitably be very different in character from their previous project. Alice is a colourful, light-hearted and rather jolly creation that appeals, like Lewis Carroll's story on which it is based, to both adults and children. The Winter's Tale is something else. Shakespeare's original is sometimes categorised as one of his "problem plays" - works which mirror the messy reality of life by blurring conventional moral absolutes and offering no clear-cut resolution to the issues and ambiguities that they explore. As a result, any artistic recreation of its dark themes and its often claustrophobic atmosphere - even a ballet where any language has been completely excised - will, at the very least, touch on some serious issues that won't necessarily appeal to the same wide audience that so enjoyed Alice. With subject matter encompassing, among other things, irrational jealousy, paranoia, emotional frigidity and rejection of one's own children, The Winter's Tale is – or ought to be - a seriously deep and disquieting piece. In spite of a tacked-on and superficial "happy ending", in practice it offers no real emotional catharsis or satisfactory resolution of the moral complexities with which it confronts us.

As such, much of Joby Talbot's atmospheric music, especially when it depicts Leontes's descent into insanely irrational suspicion during the course of the plot-heavy first Act, is appropriately dark, angular and unsettling - or, as he himself describes it in one of the short extra features included on this disc, "taut and troubled". Until the melodramatics at its very end, Act 2 offers a very different picture. Its score, as Mr Talbot points out in a short but useful supplementary feature, is on an entirely different plane - more obviously tuneful and upbeat, a sunny reflection of the idyllic pastoral life of its community of Bohemian shepherds. While Act 3 returns us to the darker atmosphere of Leontes' Sicilian court, its music is now calmer and more resolved, sorrowful rather than agitated, reflecting the king's resigned recognition that his terrible initial error had destroyed his family, as he believes, for ever.

The finely wrought and attractive Talbot score provides a highly effective platform for Christopher Wheeldon's distinctive and imaginative - yet in its essentials traditional - choreography and for the Royal Ballet's dancers. Their skilled, technically assured performances, along with the personal input and supervision of its creators, only intensify the authority of this production. As the emotionally twisted and battered Leontes, Edward Watson's very powerful acting adds immeasurably to the dramatic impact of his skilled dancing. Lauren Cuthbertson is genuinely affecting as his put-upon wife and conveys an air of autumnal maturity that may surprise those who remember her portrayal, from just a few years ago, of a vivaciously youthful and naive Juliet (see here). As the younger-generation lovers Perdita and Florizel, Sarah Lamb and Steven McRae are not required to plumb the same emotional depths as their seniors, but convincingly convey both their own high spirits and their love. Of the other roles, Federico Bonelli impresses strongly as the Bohemian king - with a memorable facial expression of vengeful fury during the visual coup de thtre that brings Act 2 to its dramatic conclusion - and Zenaida Yanowsky, made up to be the spitting image of a younger Agnes Moorhead, is quite perfect in the pivotal role of Hermione's faithful servant Paulina.

Bob Crowley's spare but striking designs suitably emphasise the emotional sterility of Leontes' court in Acts 1 and 3, while his busier and more colourful staging of Act 2 properly reinforces its bucolic atmosphere.

As usual, highly experienced video director Ross MacGibbon does an expert job, its quality demonstrated by the way that it succeeds in never drawing attention to itself. Mr MacGibbon has the skill of positioning a camera in the right place at the right time, one not necessarily shared by all his peers, especially when faced with the particular problems inherent in filming ballet.

An issue that sometimes arises with Blu-ray discs of dance is that of motion judder during laterally panning shots. This disc appears entirely free of technical problems, however, with picture and sound of excellent quality. Anyone attracted by this production need not hesitate at all, therefore, in snapping it up.

Rob Maynard

Blu-ray details
Picture format: 1080p High Definition Blu-ray, 16:9
Blu-ray format: BD-50
Audio: LPCM 24-bit stereo and 5.0 DTS-HD master audio
Region: all regions