It’s something akin to hurricane season in New York. Following the wild storm which opens Verdi’s Otello, broadcast from the Met a fortnight ago, Superstorm Sandy lashed the city, only to be replaced by a more localised tempest raging at the hands of Prospero as Thomas Adès’ opera swept in via a production by Robert Lepage, previously seen at the Grand Théâtre de Québec. Lepage’s Ring cycle for the Met has been criticized for lacking any central concept. Here, the central concept seemed stronger, though he doesn’t always do anything with it, as the old theatre within a theatre ruse was mined once again. But a strong cast, headed by Simon Keenlyside as Prospero, a role which he created for the Royal Opera world premiere eight years ago, held much promise for a cinema screening in a less-blustery Hampshire.
I well remember the press storm surrounding the premiere of Adès’ The Tempest at Covent Garden in 2004. The anticipation was palpable and the advance publicity proclaimed Adès as an heir to the operatic mantle of Benjamin Britten. Unfortunately, his distinctive music – shimmering, gauzy strings and stabbing brass – is seriously undermined by a clunky libretto. When Britten and Pears fashioned their libretto of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, they added just a single line of their own to Shakespeare’s – “compelling thee to marry with Demetrius” – to clarify the plot after necessary cuts had been administered. Sadly, Meredith Oakes strips away too much of the Bard, although it could be argued that her tauter, snappier lines suit the spiky angularity of Adès’ writing. Too often, her work nullifies the beauty of Shakespeare and the poetry is weakened.
Tom Cairns’ set design at Covent Garden featured a giant book - Prospero’s spells – out of which characters emerged; Prospero the magician manipulating events. Lepage, who has directed Shakespeare’s play eight times, transports us from the opera house to… an opera house: the Teatro alla Scala, Milan. Prospero is the deposed Duke of Milan, of course, and there would seem to be some mileage in a concept where he is perhaps a once powerful opera director, but Lepage never explores the idea. Instead, in Jasmine Catudal’s sets, his characters seem to be trapped in a (very pretty) production in a nineteenth century opera house. Ariel swings from a chandelier as Prospero’s storm is whipped up on-stage, while Caliban emerges from the bowels of the theatre via the prompt box. The tiers of La Scala’s auditorium twinkle in the backcloth. Act II spins the stage around, as if we’re watching from the stalls behind the scallop shell footlights, while Act III takes place backstage, later to morph into a side on view incorporating both stage and stalls.
Lepage’s development of his characters is uneven, often relying on Adès’ music to flesh out their personalities. Prospero’s oppression of Caliban is underplayed, the cause of his complaint being more to do with being spurned by Miranda. Similarly, Ariel’s rebellious side isn’t as malevolently projected. Audrey Luna, who sang the role of Ariel in this production in Québec, coped with the stratospheric tessitura, pinging out high Ds, Es, Fs and a G in a gravity-defying performance, although the difficulty in picking out many words in music pitched so high as to be comprehensible only to canines remained. Thank goodness for subtitles. The pinpoint accuracy of Luna’s fearless coloratura and her athletic performance, even with a double for Ariel’s acrobatics on the chandelier, were breathtaking.
As Prospero, Keenlyside was in muscular voice, his ringing baritone declaiming the role heroically. Years of singing heavier repertoire since the 2004 premiere, plus the experience of singing Adès’ music, made this an even more satisfying assumption. In Lepage’s production, Prospero stands around observing events, illustrating his powerlessness to stop them. By Act III, he is a broken man and his solo ‘With my art I’ve dimmed the sun’ was eloquently expressed. His chest and arms covered in body art – tattoos of his magic as he has lost his books – Keenlyside’s Prospero looked as magnificent as it sounded.
The pair of young lovers was most effectively cast; Isabel Leonard as Prospero’s daughter, Miranda, and Alek Shrader as Ferdinand, whose heady tones were frequently exquisite. Leonard’s mezzo is pushed desperately high in Miranda’s opening pages (a role sung by soprano Kate Royal at the 2007 Covent Garden revival), but she soon settled to deliver some gorgeous note-spinning in the Act II love scene, ending when she and Shrader made a touching hand-in-hand exit into a glowing beach sunset.
Toby Spence, who created the role of Ferdinand, here sang the role of Antonio, Prospero’s scheming brother. Robust of tone, and looking as youthful as ever, he made a strong impression, even if playing the villain doesn’t look like natural territory for him. William Burden was an exceptionally fine King of Naples, wracked with grief at the suspected loss of his son in the shipwreck, while Christopher Feigum was a blustery Sebastian. In the role of Gonzalo, (remarkably taken by the 82-year old veteran Joseph Rouleau in Quebec), John del Carlo struck a sympathetic figure, although his low notes are conspicuously hollow.
Alan Oke presented Caliban as an earthier figure than Ian Bostridge’s gauche, noble monster back in 2004, his green-furred, matted costume making him wilder, his lusting after Miranda believable. Vocally, Oke’s tenor has a darker timbre and some of his lines had a coarse, grainy quality not inappropriate here. This gave his final solo, as he is left all alone on the island, a haunting quality that was deeply moving. Kym Barrett’s costumes, as can be seen, are beautiful creations.
Comic relief came in the form of Iestyn Davies and Kevin Burdette as Trinculo and Stefano, cherishing their keg of brandy above anything else. Davies’ counter-tenor cut across the orchestration admirably and the pair formed a great partnership with Oke’s Caliban.
Adès was in the pit to conduct his opera, drawing a virtuosic response from the Met Orchestra in a score which frequently shimmers with beauty between its more strident moments. The Tempest has had a number of productions since its premiere and as Ariel scrambled up the La Scala curtain at the end, one feels hopeful that it now has at least a tentative foot in the repertory.
Photographs © Ken Howard