John Harbison's Opera "Winter's Tale"

Boston Modern Orchestra Project (BMOP) Performs Premiere

By: - Mar 24, 2009

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Boston, MA –Friday, March 20th, 2009, colleagues, friends and opera lovers celebrated the 70th birthday of esteemed America composer John Harbison (b. 1938) in Jordan Hall, an intimate theater where Boston Modern Orchestra Project (BMOP) staged the first complete performance of Harbison's first opera, Winter's Tale (1974, revised 1991). Opera is Harbison's favorite medium. He won a 1987 Pulitzer Prize for his cantata Flight into Egypt. The excitement and admiration were palpable and audience rewarded, in two acts.

Riveting, an emotional roller-coaster performance from Boston's top vocalists, chorus and orchestra was masterfully conducted by Gil Rose, BMOP'S Artistic Director. "It's a great honor to present to Boston for the first time John Harbison's first opera. It's a debut that is long overdue," said Rose.

Deceit, jealousies, murders and redemption -never out of fashion –gripped the audience through Harbison's self-described "chilling" first act whose 'dense texture' expressed "the disordered mind of Leontes" irrational with jealousy for his wife Hermione and their son Polixenes "and the dislocated state of the whole cosmos".

Searing arias of transformative passion incinerated librettos of mezzo-sopranos Janna Baty (Hermione) and Pamela Dellal (Paulina). A tense intermission was uncorked by the second act: light, flowery and full of release, Harbison's Shakespeare-based libretto could be fully appreciated when sung by soprano Anne Harley (Perdita) and, tenor Matthew Anderson (Polixenes) acclaimed for his "exemplary diction and rich baritone". Exceptional performances were the evening's rule: Dana Whiteside (Time), Jeramie Hammond (Shepard), Christian Figueroa (Antigonus), Paul Guttry (Camillo) and Matthew Anderson (Florizel).

Harbison most radical revision of Shakespeare's play were his six "Dumbshows" that streamlined the narrative. Revised for Friday's performance, "Dumbshow" pre-recorded tapes were replaced by the orchestra which commanded the stage throughout. Divas, the chorus, baritones and tenor lacking opera's usual extravagant staging and costumes sang from the stage's periphery. This made the soap opera-like actions hard to follow, as Harbison cautioned in his pre-concert talk.

By condensing Shakespeare's 1623 five-act play into two, Harbison served today's audiences short on time: in two hours, Leontes, King of Sicilia, his wife Hermione, their son Polixenes, King of Bohemia and Camillo, a Lord of Sicilia engage in a plot based on jealousy, deceit and murder. Leontes consumed by jealousy for his wife and son causes mayhem and years of suffering. His daughter Perdita, banished for sixteen years, returns, is recognized and accepted by her father who discerns a long-obscured truth followed by reconciliation. As Perdita views her mother's statue, Leontes renews his faith in his marriage to Hermiones who then descends from the pedestal and returns to life

Winter's Tale is closer to a Greek drama than a transcription of Shakespeare: two acts separated by twenty years gives greater prominence to Time as a narrator than Shakespeare's plays, introduces both acts and figures in the action of the opera. Harbison 
BMOP'S ongoing effort to perform and disseminate Harbison's significant, yet unknown, early works, dates back to premiere of Harbison's complete ballet Ulysses in 2003 and includes Winter's Tale (2009). 

The orchestra's record label BMOP/sound will release Winter's Tale in 2011 and, on April first, his opera Full Moon in March. Accolades in 2008, for BMOP/sound include a Grammy® nomination for the release Charles Fussell: Wilde and Best CDs of 2008 (Time Out New York). New CDs are being released on a monthly basis with eleven CDs slated for 2009.

Asked for his "artistic credo" in 1999, Harbison replied "to make each piece different from the others, to find clear, fresh large designs, to reinvent traditions". Composer of over 70 works of opera, choral, voice with orchestra and chamber/solo works, Harbison won a Pulitzer Prize (1987) for cantata The Flight into Egypt. The Metropolitan Opera commissioned his The Great Gatsby to celebrate Maestro James Levine's 25th anniversary with the company; it premiered in 1999. An Institute Professor at M.I.T. since 1969, Harbison studied music at Harvard then Princeton and is a former student of Walter Piston and Roger Sessions, First national attention came from Boston Symphony Orchestra's 1976 premiere of Diotima commissioned by the Koussevitzky Foundation. As a conductor, he has worked with the Cantata Singers (1969-1973) and Collage, a new-music group established in 1984. Principle guest director of Emmanuel Music in Boston, in 2007 he became the Acting Artistic Director.

Founded in 1996 by Gil Rose, Artistic Director, Boston Modern Orchestra Project is widely recognized as the premiere orchestra in the United States dedicated exclusively to commissioning, performing, and recording new orchestral music. Since its founding in 1996, BMOP has commissioned new works and re-discovered "classics" of the 20th century, infusing them with the emotion, humor, and urgency that have been hallmarks of the modern era and its music.