Thomas Adès’ The Tempest has had something like eight runs since its premiere at Covent Garden in 2004. It recently opened at the Metropolitan Opera in a new production by Robert Lepage which was broadcast as part of the Met in HD series this afternoon. It’s an interesting work musically. Some of the vocal writing is reminiscent of Britten. It all tends to a high tessitura for the voice type concerned and goes to extremes in that direction for the soprano part of Ariel where parts are so high that clear articulation of the words is impossible. Writing for voice and orchestra ranges from dissonant to extremely lyrical (the act 2 duet between Miranda and Ferdinand). Key and time signature changes are legion and many of the intervals for the singers are extreme. It must be extremely difficult to perform but it’s rather lovely to listen to.
The libretto by Meredith Oakes is a bit odd. It cleaves pretty closely to Shakespeare’s story line but is rewritten in modern English and mostly in rhyming couplets. Apparently the motivation for this is that pentameters are hard to sing but set against the challenges singing the music poses that seems pretty minor. In any event, in places the rewrite works well, in others it’s jarring and borderline bathetic. I think Britten and Pears did better with A Midsummer Night’s Dream; merely abridging, rather than rewriting, Shakespeare’s text.
The production is set in a set of fantasy La Scala, presumably to evoke Milan, but one hardly notices. Seen in the HD broadcast it seems pretty straightforward with some interesting visuals for Ariel and Caliban and the key relationships; Prospero/Miranda, Miranda/Ferdinand and Prospero/Ariel well brought out. maybe it looked different live but I thought, as presented in the cinema, it worked pretty well. It was a less frenetic effort from Gary Halvorson and his cameramen than we sometimes get so I can’t think that the “house view” could have been wildly different from what we saw.
The performances were excellent. Simon Keenleyside was an amazingly powerful presence as Prospero, Audrey Luna sang Ariel’s impossible music, much of the time hanging from a wire or being carried around, amazingly well. Isobel Leonard and Alek Shrader were a lyrical and ardent pair of lovers and Alan Oke was suitably earthy as Caliban. Among the rest of the cast I really liked whoever was singing Gonzalo who isn’t credited in the MetHD brochure (John del Carlo apparently). The composer conducted and seemed to get excellent support from the orchestra.