The Tempest: A very 21st century opera

The Metropolitan Opera seems unable to leave The Tempest alone. Last year, it was The Enchanted Island, a pastiche with music by Vivaldi, Handel and other baroque composers with a libretto mixing The Tempest with A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

This year, we have The Tempest, an opera by the very 21st century British composer Thomas Adès, and currently showing at Cinema Nouveau as part of the Metropolitan Opera’s Live in HD series.

The singers, for the most part, are sublime. Baritone Simon Keenlyside created the role of Prospero when the opera debuted in London  in 2004. He stalks the stage tattooed with forgotten spells from neck to waist, a cape flung over one shoulder. Tenor Alek Shrader is an excellent Ferdinand, son of the king of Naples, thought lost in the shipwreck Prospero produces but very much alive. Prospero hangs Ferdinand by his wrists between two trees but Miranda, sung wonderfully by mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard, finds him, falls in love with him and frees him.

Ariel is the exception, but the problem does not lie with coloratura soprano Audrey Luna. For Ariel, Adès  has written music replete with screeches and yips, an effect neither ethereal nor playful, but painfully grating. Luna gives it her best shot but one would hate to be her throat after a performance.

The effects as the opera begins almost overshadow the action that follows. We see an Ariel acrobat twisting and turning on a chandelier, and below, a sea of blue in torment, tossing hapless passengers around like rag dolls before they disappear beneath the waves.  

All the world's a stage
Director Robert Lepage has set the opera not among the swamps and forests and caves on Shakespeare’s island but at La Scala, with Prospero wreaking havoc from a replica of the opera house he has built. Setting the opera in a theatre is perhaps a gesture highlighting the artificiality of the form, with Prospero “directing” the other players –  underlining the point that everything is a performance; the  choice of La Scala is presumably a nod to Prospero’s office as Duke of Milan before being ousted – literally set adrift – by his scheming brother. And it makes it possible for characters – notably tenor  Alan Oke, as Caliban – to enter the stage by sliding out of a prompter’s box.

Although Adès’s music is said to be more mellifluous than that of his contemporaries, it seems not as accessible to the general opera-going public as is the work of, for example, Philip Glass and John Adams, whose operas have also been performed at the Met and sent round the world in the Live in HD series. Then again, Adès is the new generation, and the New York Times’ Anthony Tommasini has found The Tempest to be Adès’s most “inspired, audacious and personal” work.  It is hugely popular with opera companies: the Met production is the fifth since its debut.

Interviews with the principals were screened in the interval; they were most entertaining. Adès, who  was conductor as well as composer, said it was good to be able to tell the orchestra to play the notes “the way they’re written”.  Leonard spoke of how meaningful it was to work with Adès; when one had trouble with a note or a line, the composer helped her work through it. Did he change a note that you were unhappy with? she was asked. Well, actually, no.

As for Keenlyside, when he was asked his reaction when he first saw the score, his response was one word: “Panic.”

The Tempest will be shown on selected days until December 27 at Cinema Nouveau. Check the Ster-Kinekor website for days and times. It is one of the shorter operas this season: with intervals, under three and a half hours.

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Barbara Ludman
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