The Metropolitan Opera on Tuesday, October 23.
Maybe now that the election is over—and with such a satisfying conclusion!!—I can finally step away from my news feeds and focus long enough to complete this post.
Shakespeare’s The Tempest is a great choice for an operatic adaptation. The drama—first love! old betrayals!—is big and grand. The supernatural elements are appropriately mysterious and intense, and the happy ending is somewhat cloudy and dark in a way that feels dramatically satisfying. In short, the play has depth and texture without getting bogged down in narrative complexity, which seems just about perfect for the broad but vivid strokes of opera.
Musically, Thomas Adès’s opera lives up to that potential well, cultivating an eerie beauty and achieving a few moments of dazzling brilliance. Lyrically, playwright Meredith Oakes does the composer no favors with an abomination of a libretto, rewriting some of Shakespeare’s most poetic, evocative lines into banal, rhymey-rhymey couplets. But the music, after all, is what matters most in opera, and there Adès’s Tempest achieves something special: a contemporary opera that might actually enter the repertory.
The opera premiered almost ten years ago at the Royal Opera House in London and has since been seen, to widespread acclaim, elsewhere in Europe and the United States. This season marks its Metropolitan Opera debut, with a gimmicky new production by Robert Lepage. Lepage has created a theater within the theater, with a magician-impresario Prospero staging an overtly theatrical storm during the prelude. Characters move along catwalks, pop out of trapdoors, and leap from the “audience” to the “stage” and back again. It’s cute, and it works thematically so far as Prospero is concerned, but elsewhere it becomes rather incoherent, the kind of staging that doesn’t bear much thinking about. And that’s fine, whatever—it’s not too distracting, and it is rather cool-looking, and from what I heard of Lepage’s overblown production of the Ring Cycle a couple of seasons ago, “not too distracting” and “rather cool-looking” might be the most one should ask of him.
In any case, to repeat myself, music is what matters most in opera, and Adès’s music ably withstands Lepage’s showy contrivances. He neither panders to nor actively rebuffs the audience, borrowing some late-romantic flourishes to create a lush, bewitching sound that perfectly suits the material. Harmonies fracture and converge with the narrative, and melodies range from the capriciously chromatic to the soothingly tonal.
The love duets between Miranda (Isabel Leonard) and Ferdinand (Alek Shrader) are, fittingly, the most obviously pretty, melodic and bright. Prospero (Simon Keenlyside) and his old antagonist, the King of Naples (William Burden), aren’t given any particularly memorable arias, but both stood out nonetheless, especially Burden, whose clear, impassioned tenor voice made one want to immediately forgive the king for his long-past betrayal of Prospero.
The most inspired vocal lines, however, go to Caliban (Alan Oke) and Ariel (Audrey Luna). Although the costumer and choreographer don’t appear to have gotten the memo, designing wincingly “savage” attire and movements for the enslaved character, Adès seems quite sympathetic to Caliban, giving him some of the most alluring arias, with aggrieved, petulant melodies that make even odd intervals sound organic. Oke performed them beautifully, with a heady tone that managed to convey pain without sounding, you know, pained.
The most spectacular material goes to Ariel, and Luna pulled it off with panache. To convey the sprite’s otherworldly nature, Adès wrote her in a crazily stratospheric range: wild coloratura lines like Mozart’s Queen of the Night on crack. Ariel’s first appearance almost startled me out of my seat, but once I got used to the intense range, it became dramatically effective. For her part, Luna nailed every note with a strikingly birdlike timbre and even succeeded in singing the sustained lines at an uncanny pianissimo. The “Five fathoms deep” aria (ugh—why, Oakes, why?) is mesmerizing.
I think Adès’s best work might be for the orchestra, though. The vocal lines sometimes get a shade repetitive, but the orchestration covers a vast spectrum of color, from the violent storm to the dawning romance to the virtually mystical peace of the island restored at the end. That concluding scene is, in fact, one of the most lovely. Unlike Shakespeare, Adès and Oakes conclude not with Prospero (who is leaving, after all) but with Ariel and Caliban, both finally free, reinstating the primal, magical nature of their home. Strings and woodwinds cast their spell, pure unmetered sounds, harmonies shimmering, overtones sparkling, and above it all the distant voice of Ariel arcing upward, like a bird circling overhead.