Leontes, King of Sicilia, his wife Hermione, their son Mamillius, Polixenes, King of Bohemia and Camillo, a Lord of Sicilia engage in a plot encompassing conflicting deceits, jealousies, murders and redemption. Leontes is consumed by irrational jealousy regarding Hermione and Polixenes. His resulting actions cause years of anguish and unhappiness. When Perdita, Leontes’s banished daughter, appears sixteen years later, Leontes finally recognises and accepts her. He discerns the long-hidden truth and all are reconciled. Perdita views the statue of her mother and when Leontes proclaims renewed faith in his marriage, Hermione is brought back to life and descends from the pedestal. Human error has been redeemed.
is based on Shakespeare’s play, but it is not a “Shakespearian” opera in any dramaturgical sense. By eliminating the Autolycus subplot, compressing the action, and focusing on the ritual and lyrical elements in the drama, the opera is closer to Greek drama than it is to Shakespeare.
Musically a kind of continuous arioso, an inverted complement to the continuous recitative of Debussy’s Pelleas
, the opera’s dramatic pace is swift and graphic at first, but evolves gradually toward greater inwardness and expansiveness.
Since the two halves of the opera are separated by twenty years time, Time as a narrator is given a prominence much greater than in Shakespeare's play, introducing both Acts, and appearing in the action as well.
The major innovation is the inclusion of six Dumbshows, or pantomimes, at points of crucial action and summation, partially as a means of vitiating the need for recitative. These six episodes proceed in non-realistic movement, and the music is dominated by images of Time. Originally presented on tape, the music of the Dumbshows is being transferred to the orchestra.
The opera is by no means a transcription of Shakespeare’s play, and many of the play’s most significant aspects are not present. They are replaced by elements especially suitable to opera, and those elements of the play that suggest the irrational, the symbolic, and the magical are greatly enhanced by the melodic and harmonic life of the opera.