'Winter's Tale' Goes Operatic


By David Stevens    International Herald Tribune


LYON - Opera is sprouting signs of new life, with major theaters staging new works commissioned from composers with a gift and a yen for music theater, and producing works that show every indication of surviving the obligatory premieres.

Philippe Boesmans, the Belgian composer whose ''Reigen'' - based on Arthur Schnitzler's play - made the rounds of several European opera houses in the mid-1990s, is back with ''Wintermaerchen,'' based on Shakespeare's dramatic romance ''The Winter's Tale.'' It was jointly produced by the Monnaie in Brussels, where it was staged in December, and the Lyon Opera, where it is now running to full and enthusiastic houses.

The audiences respond to a composer who speaks a musical language that is eclectic yet personal and communicative. Here it is serving one of the poet's stranger dramas, a tale of a wild and irrational jealousy that damages the lives of almost all the other characters, yet ends happily. The story is less important than the gallery of character studies that furnish the work, and for which Boesmans has given ample voice in a work whose four acts include some two and a half hours of music.

As is the case in any opera based on a play, musical time being far slower than spoken time, the narrative is subjected to severe tightening. Luc Bondy, who staged the piece, also ingeniously shaped the libretto in collaboration with Marie-Louise Bischofberger, adding and subtracting characters to suit musical-dramatic needs. The role of Autolycus is one casualty, but a quintet is a classic musical method of compressing information, and the oracular voice declaring the innocence of the supposed adulterers is heard but not seen.

One invention is a vagrant narrator alternately named Green or Time, both superbly handled by the veteran character tenor Heinz Zednik. The Green is an allusion to the writer Robert Greene, a Shakespeare contemporary, whose story ''Pandosto: The Triumph of Time'' is the apparent source of the play. Time is the time that heals all wounds.

Perdita, the daughter who Leontes, king of Sicily, believes to be the adulterous offspring of his wife, Hermione, and his boyhood friend, Polixenes, king of Bohemia, is here a silent role taken by a dancer (Johanne Saunier) - her voicelessness seeming to be an affliction caused by Leontes's bizarre suspicions.

The libretto is mainly in German - on a practical level a way of skirting Belgium's French-Flemish linguistic problems - but the rustic scenes of the love between Perdita and Florizel (Polixenes's son) are given a total change of atmosphere by switching to English and by a switch in the music. Florizel is sung by the rock musician Kris Dane, who wrote a couple of his character's songs, and these scenes also involve the improvised services of the rock trio Aka Moon.

Otherwise, Patrick Davin was in solid command in the pit, and Bondy's staging was efficiently unobtrusive. The main element in Erich Wonder's sets was a wall of ice from which Hermione's statue returned to life when Leontes recovered his senses, and Rudy Sabounghi's costumes were as timeless as the play itself, as were Lucinda Childs's choreographic elements. The excellent cast was headed by the Finnish baritone Juha Kotilainen as a magnificently raving Leontes, Susan Chilcott radiant as the wronged and deeply frozen Hermione, Cornelia Kallisch powerful in her repeated denunciations of the demented Leontes and the tenor Anthony Rolfe-Johnson was moving as the aggrieved Polixenes.