Thomas Adès’ opera The Tempest was first performed at London’s Royal Opera House in 2004. It received it’s Met premiere October 23 of this year with the same cast that performed on today’s telecast. Based on Shakespeare’s final play it has been altered by librettist Meredith Oakes to conform to modern English usage. The result is a sub-sophomoric fusillade of rhyming (and almost rhyming couplets) like this one: Monster have mercy/We are thirsty. Two hours of this might drive a listener to Berlitz in search of lessons on how to lose the ability to understand English. If I thought the opera was good enough to recommend to others I’d limit these potential auditors to non-English speakers with the titles turned off. The problem with today’s performance was that, with the exception of Audrey Luna’s Ariel, you could understand every word the singers produced. Luna couldn’t be understood because her part is written so high that she was more concerned with avoiding anoxia that achieving intelligibility. The sound she emitted most closely resembled a dog whistle. The composer’s fault, not hers.
Some have professed to be moved by Adès’ score. I found it mostly a constant stream of dreary parlando. There was, to my lights, nothing to distinguish it from the host of operas foisted on the aging opera goer over the past half century. This performance was the sixth of seven that the Met will give. There were many empty seats in the house visible to the TV viewer.
The production was about as good as one can do with this material. Director Robert Lepage set the action in the 19th century in the middle of the Teatro alla Scala. The only reason for this I can think of is that Prospero is the deposed Duke of Milan and La Scala is in in that city. The opera’s opening scene depicting the sinking of the Milan party’s ship and the survivors swimming for their lives was vividly depicted by billowing sheets as the tumultuous sea.
Simon Keenlyside is first rate at everything he does. As Prospero he had so much body art smeared all over him that he could easily have been up for Queequeg in Heggie’s Moby Dick – which, incidently, is a far better opera. Adès’ Prospero seems more like a stage director than the great wise magician of Shakespeare. He seems as much observer as participant. Keenlyside got everything both vocally and dramatically that was in his part, but he didn’t have that much to work with.
Mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard is very attractive and was secure vocally as Prospero’s coming of age daughter Miranda. Tenor Alek Shrader made his Met debut in the first performance of this run. He will return as Almaviva in the Met’s abbreviated English version of Rossini’s Barber later this season. He has a pleasant lyric that was not taxed by his undemanding part – Ferdinand, Miranda’s lover. Alan Oke looked like it was still Halloween as the put upon aboriginal Caliban. He’s the only one left on stage at the opera’s end. No attempt at Prospero’s valedictory epilogue is made. I’ve already mentioned Ariel who was hoisted by a cable for much of the show. The Italians survivors were effectively played. Most noteworthy were William Burden as the King of Naples, Toby Spence as the unrepentant villain Antonio, and John Del Carlo as Gonzalo. The composer conducted.
There have been at least 45 operas based on The Tempest. Eventually, someone may get it right. I’m sure there were some in the audience who were taken with the piece. But all it left me with was Prospero’s famous speech below about the opera’s dominant characteristic. I’d had enough of doggerel substituting for poetry.
Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d tow’rs, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.
Thomas Adès–Meredith Oakes/William Shakespeare
Ferdinand……………Alek Shrader [Debut]
Gonzalo……………..John Del Carlo
King of Naples……….William Burden
Set Designer…………Jasmine Catudal
Costume Designer……..Kym Barrett
Lighting Designer…….Michel Beaulieu
Video Image Artist……David Leclerc
TV Director………….Gary Halvorson
The Tempest is a co-production of the Metropolitan Opera, L’Opèra de Quèbec and the Wiener Staatsoper, Vienna
In collaboration with Ex Machina