Harbison's ambitious Winter's Tale arrives with spring

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The Boston Globe
David Weininger
March 24, 2009

John Harbison's music is so ubiquitous here that you might think there was nothing more to discover. Yet until Friday, Boston had never heard Winter's Tale, the Shakespeare-based opera he composed in the 1970s. The ever-intrepid Boston Modern Orchestra Project's concert performance took place, ironically, on the first day of spring.

Harbison created his own libretto from the play, streamlining the action and synthesizing its five acts into two, which divide neatly along emotional lines. The first act is centered on Leontes, the King of Sicily, who mistakenly suspects that his wife, Hermione, has betrayed him with his friend Polixenes. As suspicion grows into jealousy and then obsession, the music becomes increasingly complex and astringent, with new ideas following one another at a blistering pace. At the end of the act, when the king banishes his newborn daughter and is told that Hermione has died, the foundation of Leontes's world audibly falls away.

Redemption comes in the second act, 16 years later. A deeply rueful Leontes is reunited with his daughter, Perdita, who has fallen in love with Polixenes's son Florizel. A statue of Hermione, commissioned by her friend Paulina, turns out to be the queen herself. It is one of those neat Shakespearean acts of reconciliation that's both dramatically satisfying and a little hard to swallow. The music, so biting in the first act, is here all gentle transparency, happy enough to look on as a spectator and let events take their happy course.

Harbison's text setting is occasionally a bit awkward, and the orchestration overwhelms the singers in a few places. Nevertheless, Winter's Tale is a strikingly assured and ambitious work for a composer in his mid-30s. It's also a demanding one, especially for the singers, and Friday's performance had an outstanding cast. Among the standouts were Janna Baty, who was a lustrous-voiced Hermione, Pamela Dellal's warmly focused Paulina, and Anne Harley, who coped easily with the high tessitura of Perdita's role.

But the dramatic weight of the opera falls chiefly on Leontes, who was brilliantly sung by David Kravitz. His robust voice rang out easily over the orchestra, but it was chiefly his presence and the sheer force of his character that made Friday's performance so compelling.

Gil Rose conducted Harbison's score with conviction and precision. The BMOP orchestra sounded tentative at first but grew more secure as it went on. The composer was greeted as a conquering hero at the end.

© Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company