The Winter’s Tale

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Last night Quantum Theatre presented the first performance of its The Winter’s Tale, a world premiere commissioned by The Benter Foundation. This Baroque opera, based on Shakespeare’s play, was created by Quantum’s Karla Boos; music director/conductor Andres Cladera; Chatham Baroque’s Andrew Fouts, Patricia Halverson and Scott Pauley, and Attack Theatre’s Michele de la Reza and Peter Kope, with additional music by Justin Wallace. Some of the greatest composers in history have struggled with varying degrees of success to set adaptations of the Bard of Avon’s works to their own original music, so the many involved are to be commended on plunging into very deep waters as successfully as they did.

As the program notes make clear, however, the music is tried and true, and borrowed and adapted from many composers. The overture, for example, is Charpentier’s “Ouverture et March Triomphante.” Arias and scenes are likewise taken from pieces by Händel, Vivaldi, Bach, Purcell, Lully and many others, then fitted to the text. True to the “Baroque” style, the opera is heavy with recitativo secco (literally, “dry,” sung speech, accompanied only by a continuo or harpsicord) and recitativo accompagnato (the same, to orchestral accompaniment), and light on sustained singing. This type of music is quite taxing on the vocalists’ methods and senses of legato, since a word as simple as “blood” might be sung as if it had twenty or more syllables. Last night’s singers had varying but fairly consistent success with this colossal feat.

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(Rebecca Belczyk as Perdita, Robert Frankenberry as King Polixenes, and Shannon Kessler Dooley as Camillo)

As far as the play used in this operatic adaptation, The Winter’s Tale was originally published in the “First Folio” of 1623, several years after Shakespeare’s death. It was listed among the comedies, but several latter day editors have called the play one of Shakespeare’s “late romances.” More than one critic has referred to it as one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays”, because the first three acts rely heavily on psychological drama, while the last two acts are more comedic. The opera condenses the action into two very busy acts, and combines drama and comedy in a well-balanced mix.

The staging is quite remarkable, considering the size of the jewel box styled, 300-seat auditorium atop the magnificent Union Trust Building. Clever lighting and scenic effects, amazing projections, costumes, and Attack’s dancers constantly on the scene in astonishingly choreographed acrobatics keep the eyes in perpetual motion, while the ears try to keep up with the music. The dancers also shift scenery most gracefully and, truth be told, give the piece a somewhat erotic charge. The black shorts in the dress rehearsal photos were discarded, and the flesh-colored, extremely form-fitting body stockings they wore gave the distinct impression of painted nudes in motion. It must be said that this innovation in the work is slightly disconcerting on a first viewing, as it at many points gives the impression of an opera and ballet taking place on the same stage at the same time, each vying for pre-eminence.

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(Cosmo Clemens as The Clown and Katy Williams as The Shepherdess)

The opera’s action centers on the Sicilian King Leontes and his old, visiting friend Polixenes, King of Bohemia, and the jealousy that erupts over the former’s suspicion of the latter’s romantic interest in his Queen Hermione. An enraged Leontes questions the paternity of he and Hermione’s young son, Prince Mamilius. His “man” Camillo enters, and Leontes, convinced that everyone knows his suspicions as truths, challenges Camillo to prove his loyalty by murdering Polixenes. When reasoning fails, Camillo agrees, but vows to flee Sicilia. Polixenes finds the troubled Camillo, and the two agree to escape to Bohemia. The innocent Hermione, now “great with child,” in the presence of her “woman,” Paulina, is confronted and accused by Leontes. Stunned, Hermione believes that there is “an ill planet ruling,” and resigns herself to waiting until “stars align” for salvation. Leontes orders her to prison, despite the begging to reconsider by his steward Antigonus (Paulina’s husband).

Leontes agrees to send for Apollo’s Oracle for the gods’ confirmation of his suspicions and ire. Hermione gives premature birth to a daughter, but Paulina’s plan of presenting the infant to Leontes and pointing out the baby’s resemblance to him in the hopes of making him see reason backfires, and he orders Antigonus to take “This brat is none of mine!” to be deserted somewhere it might be found and raised – or killed – far from his sight. During Hermione’s trial on charges of adultery and treason, the Oracle arrives to proclaim her innocence. She has barely begun to rejoice when a servant announces that young Mamilius has died of grief and stress. The news causes Hermione to drop on the spot, and Leontes begs forgiveness with the Oracle’s warning that he will live without an heir unless “that which is lost be not found” ringing in his ears. As Hermione dies and Leontes realizes the gravity of his error, Antigonus arrives in Bohemia with the infant. He sings of a dream in which the ghost of Hermione implores him to name the child Perdita and leave her near the shore. He does so, and in one of Shakespeare’s most famous of stage directions, is chased off by a bear (which is quite cleverly handled in the production). A Shepherdess finds the baby atop a bag stuffed with gold, as well as a note with her name and royal lineage. Her son, the Clown, races onto the scene saying that he has just seen a man eaten by a bear as his ship sank in a storm. They decide to keep the baby as their own. So much for the first act of the opera. The second act is more complicated.

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(Scott Pauley, Theorbo, Chatham Baroque; Rebecca Belczyk as Perdita, and Dan Kempson as Florizel)

It begins sixteen years after the doings of the first, in Bohemia, where Camillo remains with King Polixenes. Camillo’s longing to return to his native land is trumped by Polixenes’ concerns over his son, Prince Florizel, who has been spending a lot of time at the home of a Shepherdess said to have a beautiful daughter. They exit to disguise themselves and investigate. Autolycus, a conman and pickpocket, enters to lay in the road, claiming to have been beaten and robbed. The Clown finds him and is relieved of his money as he helps the swindler to his feet. As the Clown is on his way to the sheep shearing festival, Autolycus joins him, counting on happier hunting grounds in the crowds. Perdita has grown to be the most beautiful girl in all of Bohemia, so naturally is the “Queen” of the festival. A young man has been wooing her – and, of course, it is indeed young Prince Florizel. King Polixenes and Camillo arrive, and, while impressed by the beauty and dignity of Perdita, the former can hardly approve of his son courting a common Shepherdess’ daughter. When Florizel professes his intentions regarding the young woman, Polixenes implores him to seek first the counsel of his father. Florizel will have none of it, so Polixenes reveals himself and leaves in a rage, expecting his son to follow. But Florizel’s plans are to sail secretly away with Perdita. Camillo urges the couple to return to Sicilia and seek out the repentant King Leontes, saying Polixenes still loves his old friend.

The Shepherdess and Clown are in a quandary, and, deeply fearing Polixenes, debate revealing Perdita’s identity. Autolycus overhears, and for selfish reasons offers to accompany them to Sicilia as they sail after the King. There, at King Leontes’ court, Paulina has made every day of the last sixteen years a misery for him. She has beaten him down with guilt, and tells him he may remarry only with her consent, which she will not give, and to one only as noble as Hermione, who will never come.  Prince Florizel and Perdita arrive, claiming to have been sent by Polixenes, to Leontes’ joy, but it is quickly revealed that Perdita is a common Shepherdess’ daughter, and that the couple are fleeing Polixenes’ wrath. The Prince begs Leontes to plead their case to Polixenes, and run off. Autolycus has arrived in Sicilia with the Shepherdess and Clown, and on a road meets three men who tell of Leontes’ joy at finding his lost daughter. They learn of Antigonus’ fate, there is a happy reunion of the Kings, Polixenes has forgiven his son and promoted Perdita to Princess, and all have gone to Paulina’s home for the unveiling of a lifelike statue of the late Queen Hermione. The statue comes to life and embraces Leontes and Perdita. The program notes sum up the conclusion best: “Finally, Paulina says, ‘go, precious winners all’… she will live without her love (who was eaten by a bear.) Leontes has a final solution for her and for one other who’s faith never swayed from the truth.”

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(Gail Novak Mosites as Paulina and Raquel Winnica Young as Hermione, with dancers Ashley Williams, Dane Toney, Kaitlin Dann and Anthony Williams)

Andres Cladera brought the small chamber orchestra of period pieces vividly to life. His work and that of the instrumentalists (Geoffrey Burgess, Oboe I; Scott Pauley, Theorbo; Andrew Fouts, Violin I; Dawn Posey, Violin II; Patricia Halverson, Viola da Gamba; Stephen Schultz, Flute; Matthew Hettinga, Viola;Justin Wallace, Harpsichord; Sarah Heubsch, Oboe II, and Sue Yelanjian, Double Bass) provided a distinct sound quite in keeping with the genre of the work, and was one of the musical pleasures of the evening.

As stated previously, Attack Theater’s dancers (Kaitlin Dann, Dane Toney,Anthony Williams and Ashley Williams) were in evidence throughout, and in almost continuous motion made incredibly difficult maneuvers seem smoothly, naturally and gracefully easy. That they will repeat this amazing feat multiple times through October 3 is a wonder. Dane Toney, as he always does, particularly stood out, not only by the elegance and fluency of his movements, but by his expressive and mobile face that continuously and unobtrusively seems to comment on the action taking place.

David Newman (Leontes) and Robert Frankenberry (Polixenes) sang well and acted effectively. Both have powerful voices, and both were heard to best advantage in the sustained passages of singing. The recitatives sometimes seemed to tax them to their limits, particularly in their lower registers. They, like the others, were wonderfully costumed and presented impressive stage pictures.

Dan Kempson (Florizel) and Rebecca Belczyk (Perdita) were well paired as the young lovers. They looked their parts to perfection and sang with distinction.Raquel Winnica Young (Hermione) sang with a rich and mellow voice that grew in strength and appeal as the performance progressed. Shannon Kessler Dooley(Camillo) and Gail Novak Mosites (Paulina) gave effective performances, and their vocal and acting gifts were greatly appreciated by the almost capacity audience.

In appearance, voice and action, Katy Williams (The Shepherdess) and Cosmo Clemens (The Clown) were true delights. The Clown’s encounter with Andre Nemzer (Autolycus) was one of the best scenes of the evening.  Eugene Perry(Antigonus) acted the part well, and sang the portions that were in his voice range well, but a lot of the music is too low for him.

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(Scott Pauley, Theorbo, Chatham Baroque; Eugene Perry as Antigonus)

Scott Pauley (Theorbo, Chatham Baroque), Eugene Per
ry (Antigonus)

The production was well received and is worthy of encouraging patronage of the remaining performances. The opera will be repeated eleven times through October 3. For complete information on dates, times and tickets (as well as wonderful cast portraits), visit http://www.quantumtheatre.com/the-winters-tale/

Special thanks to Quantum Theatre for the complimentary press ticket.

The Production Team for The Winter’s Tale

Joseph Seamans, Projection Design; C. Todd Brown, Lighting Design; Tony Ferrieri, Scenic Design; Susan Tsu, Costume Design; Sophie Hood, Assistant Costume Design; Michelle K. Engleman, Stage Manager; Britton Mauk, Director of Production; David Levine, Technical Director.

Photography by Heather Mull.

Performance Date: Wednesday, September 16, 2015