John Harbison is a composer of international importance and deserves, and gets, performances and honors everywhere. But it is especially appropriate that Boston honor him, on this the occasion of his seventieth birthday, because he has given so much to the city as teacher, founder and leader of musical groups, promoter of music’s importance, encourager of young musicians, and, yes, composer. Boston’s many musical organizations, including the Boston Symphony Orchestra, have turned to Harbison over the years for new pieces and been supplied with plenty that have meant a great deal to audiences here—chamber ensemble works, vocal works, symphonies. In the concert of March 20th, the formidable Boston Modern Orchestra Project, led by Gil Rose, presented in concert version Harbison’s early opera Winter’s Tale, based on the Shakespeare play. And though at the end the audience reception was very warm for all concerned, the greatest applause went to the composer.
In the middle of the twentieth century the influential literary critic F. R. Leavis insisted that The Winter’s Tale is one of Shakespeare’s very greatest plays, for its confrontation of stark realities such as blind obsession and the concrete passage of time, and for its powerful verse that embeds human drama in the larger cycles of natural change, death and rebirth, and the progress of the seasons. (A king, Leontes, becomes unaccountably and furiously jealous of his wife and an old male friend of his, brings destruction on his family, and, after a passage of time, seems to recover most of what has been lost—though the new emerging life and reconstituted family have the feel of going their own way and rather making Leontes irrelevant after all.) By the time Harbison took up the play in the early 1970s, it was widely accepted as a masterpiece, ripe for discussion, interpretation, and creative staging. An old teacher of mine, the late man of the theater Daniel Seltzer, told me that he had met Mick Jagger at a party in London in the late 1960s, and that Jagger had said to him that he always imagined Act IV of The Winter’s Tale with rock music—the pastoral festival after a gap of sixteen years, where new life is starting to emerge and the tone of the play changes radically.
Harbison in his early to mid-thirties composed Winter’s Tale (dropping Shakespeare’s article “The”) without a commission or real prospect of performance. He simply wanted to do it. A limited production took place in San Francisco soon after composition, but the current performance is the first full one since, and uses a revised score. It is a tempestuous and impassioned work, using Shakespeare’s lines, altering no words, but condensing the text mightily, re-assigning some lines from one character to another or to the chorus—Harbison’s invention—re-forming the play into just two acts, before and after the time gap, re-casting it all in a light that deepens one’s sense of the original. Hard to say whether Harbison did his best to set a text that interested him, or found in the text an occasion to unleash music that almost seems to come from some independent agitated source, a personal drive to expression. Both, surely. That is how great operas come into being.
The opera might well be titled “Leontes,” so decisive and overwhelming is this character’s presence and mood. On one hearing, it is difficult to separate the piece from the performance. In any case, the concert has to be considered a personal triumph for the Leontes, baritone David Kravitz, almost as much as for Harbison. Kravitz’s large, multi-layered voice, his passion, his subtlety, his deeply considered acting, rode large over everything. Trumpets early come to the fore in the score to suggest both the man’s regality and his madness—“Too hot, too hot!/To mingle friendship far is mingling bloods./I have tremor cordis on me….” Lines are stretched and made emphatic musically—“The world and all that’s in’t is nothing;/The covering sky is nothing….” The singer jumps into falsetto for certain lines and parts of sentences—it is unpredictable and unnerving. Leontes’s turbulent music, his disturbance and his authority, overwhelm Harbison’s first act, up to the point where the oracle of Apollo declares Leontes wrong in his suspicions, his wife and small son are declared dead, and the king suddenly sees the light, blames himself, and falls into repentance. But in the second act, after the lapse of sixteen years and in a distant place, with new characters emerging—Leontes’s daughter Perdita (soprano Anne Harley), thought dead but now grown up and flourishing, and her lover Florizel (tenor Matthew Anderson)—here one still senses anxiety, as in the drawn-out lamenting phrases in the high strings near the beginning. No total change of mood for this pastoral festival scene, as in Shakespeare’s comic text for the Act, with sub-plots and digressions, mostly not used here—or in Mick Jagger’s vision for the scene. In the Harbison Florizel’s father Polixenes (baritone Aaron Engebreth) soon interrupts the celebration with musical anger reminiscent of Leontes. And even with the return to Leontes’s court, and a reconciliation of everybody, Leontes in subdued and repentant mode seems in a way as disturbed and only partially human as he did in his anger earlier. No one, and nothing that happens, stands up to his strange mood—it is something we hear in Harbison’s music and something that Kravitz projected not only in his voice, but in his face and bearing.
Mezzo-soprano Janna Baty as the accused wife and queen, Hermione, did balance the weight and impressiveness of Leontes/Kravitz. Her voice is commanding, and so is her stage presence and acting (earlier this year she was wonderful as Phèdre in Benjamin Britten’s setting of the Robert Lowell text, in a performance by the Cantata Singers—a group started by Harbison, now led by David Hoose). But Hermione’s part in Harbison’s opera is smaller than Leontes’s, much reduced from the play. At the end of both play and opera Hermione stands as a statue and finally comes to life. Shakespeare makes it wonderfully ambiguous as to whether the woman has in fact died and now her statue miraculously comes to life, or the woman supposed dead had in fact not died but secreted herself away, waiting for developments. The feel of the Harbison leans more to the latter. In any case, seeing Baty standing still and posed there for so long just enforced one’s sense of her subordination to her husband, one’s sense of the damage he wreaks on himself and everyone else as the prevailing mood of the piece. Hermione’s woman friend Paulina, sung with conviction by mezzo Pamela Dellal, is mainly a sufferer, not the strong and healthily resistant and grating figure she is in the Shakespeare. Everyone here, including a chorus of courtiers, then country people, sang well and projected humanity, and Baty was formidable—but all seemed quaking in the storm unleashed by the king.
Shakespeare brings in the figure of Time to introduce the new events after the sixteen-year gap. Harbison expands this role (bass Dana Whiteside, here) to introduce each of the two acts with some “dumbshow” action (an Elizabethan term for passages of action without dialogue), and at several other places there are dumbshow sequences (averted murders, in disobedience to Leontes; the reconciliation and warm greetings of all except Hermione, before turning to her at the end). The musical accompaniment to all these passages develops a steadily moving “time” motif, which is in fact the basis for all the opera’s music, where it receives much wilder and more distended development than in the dumbshow passages. But Harbison’s time has an inexorable, trapped-by-the-clock quality. It is not Shakespeare’s free, open, anything-might-happen sense of time. In a pre-concert talk, Harbison mentioned that at the time of composing Winter’s Tale he was very absorbed in the music of Schütz and Bach, and one can hear some of the stately, other-worldly quality of such music in Harbison’s pastoral scene and in the chorale that concludes the opera: “Music, awake you; strike!/Strike all that look upon with marvel/…dear life redeems you.” But there is not so much escape into a new realm in all this, as just persistence and hope and determination to go on.
T.S. Eliot loved the final plays of Shakespeare (Cymbeline, Pericles, and The Tempest, besides The Winter’s Tale) because of their sense of the miraculous, a non-doctrinal but genuine religious feeling coming to the fore, salvation and utter transformation coming about through a tuning in to what is beyond life. Leavis was more impressed with The Winter’s Tale’s facing of stark human realities and the power of nature. Harbison’s old friend philosopher Stanley Cavell has written about the play, probing deeply into the psychology of Leontes—what could have brought him to his behavior, what could sustain this. Eric Rohmer’s great film A Tale of Winter, inspired by the Shakespeare and showing some of it performed in one scene, elaborates on the quality of faith in human relations in the modern world (Cavell has written about the film as well as the play). Harbison’s opera presents Leontes as a force of nature. The disturbance never goes away. Others, and even nature itself, can find only ways to go on in face of him.
The Boston Modern Orchestra Project consists of an excellent group of musicians—they not only play brilliantly, but cultivate a sound, function as a real group. Gil Rose is a wonderful conductor, and amazes everybody around this city with his undertakings with this ensemble and also with Opera Boston, which he directs. The program booklet for Winter’s Tale advertises numerous new BMOP recordings, including Harbison’s ballet Ulysses and his opera based on Yeats, Full Moon in March. Winter’s Tale really ought to be recorded also. It is fully worthy. And staged. The singing actors in this performance made themselves very convincing. But it would be wonderful to get the orchestra out of sight (and dampen its sound a bit) and give the characters full range; wonderful to see the dumbshows enacted; and to feel the force of seeing the little boy Mamilius onstage (a silent role), whom Leontes destroys and who does not come back.