The Boston Modern Orchestra Project and its musical director Gil Rose brought a rarely-heard gem to Jordan Hall recently: John Harbison’s ambitious operatic adaptation of Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale. While the work is not without its quirks (many of them acknowledged by the composer himself in a rather somber program comment), BMOP’s reading was clear and lively, and Rose’s characteristic mastery of the score brought this difficult, yet vivid music to life on March 20th.
Shakespeare’s carefully woven tale of jealousy, error, and redemption lends itself well to operatic treatment, and Harbison himself made a clean adaptation of the original text. While this un-staged performance (opera presented in concert form, without costumes, sets, etc.) made for the occasional moment of dramatic confusion, it was well worth the chance to hear this under-performed score, composed 1972-74, revised in 1991, and performed first in 1979. Harbison makes brilliant use of the small orchestra, drawing a dazzling palate of colors from his woodwind section and effectively reserving the real fireworks from the brass and percussion sections for moments of tension and climax, such as the captivating Act I finale when a horrified King Leontes (David Kravitz) realizes the tragic consequences of his misguided jealousy. The composer delays the entrance of the chorus until this time as well, reserving that full sonic weight for this pivotal dramatic moment.
Indeed it was often the brilliance of orchestral scoring that compromised the clarity of some of the vocal lines. I found myself often referencing the libretto for bits of text lost beneath the cascade of instrumental sound. By way of occasional contrast, however, the orchestra delivered numerous passages of finely controlled, quieter playing that afforded the singers ample opportunity to use gentler subtleties of tone and expression. These interludes came often enough to maintain a sense of balance between attractive, if overwhelming bombast, and the more personal, introspective moments that truly humanize the characters and their individual struggles.
In addition to Kravitz’s Leontes, Time was sung quite convincingly by bass Dana Whiteside, with additional kudos going to tenor Matthew Anderson’s portrayal of Florizel and soprano Anne Harley’s Perdita. The cast worked well together despite the obvious challenges presented by the staging, and the small but well-rehearsed and powerful chorus provided surprising strength at moments of particular dramatic height. On the whole, it was a delight to hear this challenging yet redeeming score performed with such care and precision as BMOP brings to each of its endeavors.