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BMOP Harbison’s Winter’s Tale


The Boston Modern Orchestra’s concert in New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall on Friday, March 20, under the direction of founder Gil Rose, demonstrated this organization’s usual excellence. Devoted to a single work, the program was a concert version of John Harbison’s 1974 opera Winter’s Tale (revised in 1991), with a libretto by the composer after Shakespeare’s play.

Act I opens in ancient Sicily, where Time (bass Dana Whiteside) introduces the primary characters: King Leontes (baritone David Kravitz), his Queen (mezzo-soprano Janna Baty), and Polixenes, King of Bohemia (baritone Aaron Engebreth.) This act is a compression of Shakespeare’s first three acts, basically depicting Leontes’ disarray and madness, rendered in Kravitz’ falsetto. Harbison’s Act II takes place 16 years later, in Bohemia, when Leontes celebrates his daughter’s love for Florizel. A statue of the dead Queen comes to life, and all sing “Music: awake you; strike!”

Superbly orchestrated Dumb Shows (elements of a play that are enacted without speaking, associated especially with Medieval and Renaissance drama) punctuate the action. These were provided electronically by tape for the 1979 production, then re-orchestrated by Harbison. The music in Act I is suitably craggy, given that, basically, Leontes is “losing it.” In Act II,  set in Bohemia, the more rural setting brings a sheep-shearing scene, with actors miming it.

A strong cast delivered the complex lines effectively. The Shakespeare text is hard enough – in fact, dense – so a rendition to music of this play is hardly ever done. But Harbison did it. He is very talented, literarily as well as musically.

A small group of 20 singers, five to a part, were assembled by Rose to be the “Greek chorus,” impelling the drama from behind the orchestra.

The opera received two performances in 1979 in San Francisco, and the composer’s printed comments admit its problems at the time, one of which was that the orchestra overpowered some of the singers in Act 1.  This is still somewhat of a problem in Act I.  However, there is no pit at Jordan Hall; singers were on the side of the orchestra, which was probably not as effective as being up front.

This problem did not appear in Act II, when the writing assumes a more lyrical tone. The same voices were heard more satisfactorily because the orchestration is less dense.

Winter’s Tale is stunning, but it does not really work as a self-standing work. Some members of the audience commented that the change in musical language made it seem is almost like two operas, Act I and Act II.

Harbison seems to be everywhere in Boston as he celebrates his 70th birthday. Astonishingly, this early work has never before been heard in Boston. The composer seemed especially to enjoy this gift.

Larry Phillips studied music at Harvard, the Montreal Conservatory, and at New England Conservatory. In 1974 he was a prizewinner at the International Harpsichord Competition in Bruges, Belgium.

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