Mad love

John Harbison's Winter's Tale, Dvorák's Rusalka, Hans Graf with the BSO, Mark Morris's music
By LLOYD SCHWARTZ  |  March 24, 2009

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RUSALKA: It’s pretty and mildly melancholy, but Dvorák’s opera lacks dramatic urgency.

The destructive power of jealousy makes a good subject for opera. One of Shakespeare's plays about this most irrational emotion, the tragedy Othello, has been turned into a very good opera by Rossini and a great one by Verdi and his best librettist, Arrigo Boito.

Slideshow: BLO's Rusalka. By Jeffrey Dunn
And in the early 1970s, John Harbison wrote an opera based on Shakespeare's late tragic-comic romance The Winter's Tale, an Othello-like story in which after many years murderous jealousy ends not in tragedy but in recovery and reconciliation. Harbison wrote his Winter's Tale (he drops the article) without a commission or any hope of performance, though it had one staging, in San Francisco in 1979, and its second half was presented in concert by Emmanuel Music in 1989 under the late Craig Smith, with baritone James Maddalena as the jealous Leontes. Now, in a version revised by Harbison in 1991, Gil Rose — another champion of Harbison's music — and his Boston Modern Orchestra Project presented Boston's first complete concert version, at Jordan Hall last Friday, and that more than ever made one yearn for a full production of this extraordinary work. 

In the first act, Leontes, king of Sicilia, is overcome by the panicky thought that the real father of his forthcoming child might be his friend Polixenes, the visiting king of Bohemia (the Bohemia that has a sea coast and pursuing bears). He accuses his wife, Hermione, of adultery. Their young son is separated from his mother and dies, the new baby is abandoned, and though Hermione is cleared by Apollo's oracle, the accusation seems to have struck a mortal blow. Harbison's own libretto is a canny two-act condensation of Shakespeare, and it's a dramatic juggernaut. He told the pre-concert audience that he had set only the words he wanted to, leaving expository details to the voice of Time and the more complicated unravelings of the plot to a series of non-verbal "dumb shows." Like Auden's clocks, the music for Time begins "to whirr and chime" with the turning and grindings of cogs and gears. In the first act, we are practically inside Leontes's head — the music coils around us like the stranglehold his jealousy has on him, his fit of madness pushing his baritone up into spasms of falsetto.

The second act is set 16 years later. The abandoned infant, Perdita ("the lost girl"), has been rescued and adopted by a shepherd and has fallen in love with Polixenes's son, Florizel. Although the music uses much of the same harmonic structure, it abandons somberness (and the glowering lower instruments) and blossoms into spacious pastoral woodwind loveliness. "Losing My Mind" is exchanged for "Mountain Greenery." And through the magic of reconciliation, a statue of Hermione comes miraculously, movingly to life.

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