Exit, pursued by a bear. The one line from The Winter’s Tale that everybody knows, yet it’s just a stage direction. Antigonus abandons Queen Hermione’s baby on the coast of Bohemia when, during a violent storm, a bear chases him away. The tale of two kings  – boyhood friends – torn apart through envy and suspicion is sometimes categorised as one of Shakespeare’s ‘problem plays’ and one eschewed by the great 19th-century opera composers. It’s gnawed away at Ryan Wigglesworth for years though, since he was a student, and last night his operatic setting was premiered by English National Opera.

Timothy Robinson (Camillo) and Iain Paterson (Leontes) © Johan Persson
Timothy Robinson (Camillo) and Iain Paterson (Leontes)
© Johan Persson

For a composer whose longest work thus far has been 25 minutes in length (Echo and Narcissus), The Winter’s Tale is a splendid achievement. Wigglesworth wrote the libretto himself, filleting Shakespeare down to bite-size morsels, and he’s condensed the action without losing the essence of the plot. Too much of the Bard’s poetry has been stripped away, I feel, although lines like “Bitter on my tongue. Bitter in my thought.” and “What fine chisel could cut breath?” still stand out.

It’s the music’s job to suffuse the libretto with poetry and Wigglesworth obliges. Bells toll the passing of the years. A clarinet soliloquises. Nervy snare drum and xylophone’s rattle betray Leontes’ first suspicions. “He wears her like a medal,” he observes, as Hermione persuades Polixenes to extend his stay in Sicilia. The suffocating atmosphere of Leontes’ court erupts in brass snarls as the king orders Hermione’s baby – whom he believes was fathered by Polixenes – to be thrown to the flames. The vocal writing, though doubtless demanding, falls into a pattern of natural speech rhythms. Wigglesworth rarely drowns it in orchestral wash and the score boasts many moments of Brittenesque clarity, the ENO Orchestra alert to the composer's baton.

Anthony Gregory (Florizel), Samantha Price (Perdita) and ENO Chorus © Johan Persson
Anthony Gregory (Florizel), Samantha Price (Perdita) and ENO Chorus
© Johan Persson

In the sun-drenched Act 2, sixteen years on, woodwind chirrups evoke Bohemia where Perdita – Hermione’s abandoned baby raised as a shepherdess – innocently gathers bunches of rosemary and lavender. When her fiancé Florizel, Polixenes’ son masquerading as a shepherd, recalls how Jupiter disguised himself  as a bull, a tuba snorts. After Polixenes blows his son’s cover and disinherits him, Florizel and Perdita flee to Sicilia. A tender string prelude ebbs and flow before keening woodwinds depict Leontes, still mourning Hermione’s death. The realisation that Perdita is Leontes’ long-lost daughter and the reunion between him and Polixenes is cruelly cut away (think what Verdi does in Simon Boccanegra). A flutter-tongued flute solo accompanies the characters’ entry into Paulina’s private mausoleum where her statue of Hermione is unveiled and the ambiguously staged denouement unfolds.

<i>The Winter's Tale</i> © Johan Persson
The Winter's Tale
© Johan Persson

Rory Kinnear, directing his first opera – his first anything – places the action in a 20th-century military state and draws truthful performances from his cast. He's aided by Vicki Mortimer’s ingenious set, circular walls gliding and revolving, enabling swift scene changes. The palace, housing statues of Sicilia’s great leaders, cleaves in two at Act 1’s moment of crisis, the shattered remnants forming the ocean for Antigonus’ doomed voyage and the ramshackle shepherd inn of Act 2. The fissures in the palace walls are illuminated in Act 3 – time has not yet healed the king’s emotional wounds.

Leigh Melrose (Polixenes) and Sophie Bevan (Hermione) © Johan Persson
Leigh Melrose (Polixenes) and Sophie Bevan (Hermione)
© Johan Persson

Iain Paterson’s towering Leontes shoulders the performance, his shaggy mane giving him the aura of a wounded lion. He rose to the role’s heights – and Wigglesworth stretches him to a bass-baritone roar – magnificently. His Act 3 soliloquy “Stars, stars, all eyes else dead coals!” was deeply moving. Someone write this man a King Lear.

As Hermione, Sophie Bevan surfed the orchestral wave, floating her A sharp serenely on the final word of “There is a grief lodged here which burns” in her trial. Leigh Melrose’s firm baritone and crisp diction gave the character of Polixenes bite, while Susan Bickley was resolute as Hermione’s loyal lady-in-waiting, Paulina. Bohemia’s young lovers were charming: Anthony Gregory’s honeyed tenor perfect for the lovelorn Florizel and Samantha Price’s full lyric soprano delicious as Perdita. Timothy Robinson and Neal Davies offered strength in depth as the loyal Camillo and Antigonus. The ENO Chorus excelled, whether leading the hubbub of protest against their queen being put on trial, or invoking Apollo, accompanied by clanking percussion.

The clarity of the storytelling – in the staging, the vocal and orchestral writing – is impressive and it’s a work I immediately wanted to see again, which is always encouraging for a new opera. And the bear? He was depicted in the pit, raging against the storm, but he featured on stage too, albeit cryptically. Perhaps Peter Grimes offers a clue? But I’ve said too much... [Exit, pursued by an editor.]