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Thursday 15 November 2012

The Tempest Met Broadcast


[Before I start: It's difficult to really review opera broadcast because the focus is so different. Visually we get far more close-ups and we are shown explicitly where to focus our attention. Aurally the voices are presented in very close sound which picks up far more detail than is audible in any seat in the theatre, which is good for some singers, and bad for others. So it's important to remember that this is partially a review of the broadcast, not just the opera production.]

I am currently preparing a couple of blog posts which will be an appraisal of Thomas Adès entire oeuvre, and so will leave comments about where I think this opera fits into the bigger picture of his work for there. Generally though, I do consider myself an Adès fan, but mostly for the works of the 1990s; after this I hear a dropping off in quality, his orchestral work Tevot aside, which may well be his best piece to date. The Tempest opened to rapturous reviews when it was premièred in 2004, the superlatives dripping easily from the pens of many a reviewer. But the initial elation I think was misplaced and a case of hearing what they wanted to hear rather than what was actually there. Since the premier it has been largely admired, but rarely with such fervency.

Though I agree that there are lovely portions, I think it has serious problems, musically and dramatically. Adès' The Tempest doesn't feel ambitious enough in how it deals with the problems of adaptation and the play feels traduced not just by Meredith Oakes' clunky libretto, but in terms of the emotional scope and variety that the opera offers. There is a long tradition of doing Shakespeare in opera, and the conclusion we surely must come to by now is surely that basically it doesn't work. The original language is too rich, the interactions too subtle, there's too much discussion, and action is often too psychological to work in the operatic medium. The plays are all very long, and always need to be cut down and simplified, but it seems to be impossible to do this whilst being faithful to the original, without the feeling that the work is hopelessly compromised, and often simply undramatic. (Verdi is a case apart that requires serious discussion elsewhere. Basically it works because they are so far removed from the original plays). As drama then, Adès' The Tempest is slow and murky, but as opera too it is a problematic work. Characters don't seem motivated by psychology and inner necessity and fundamentally lack an emotional inner world. Musical characterisation goes as far as each character being associated with particular intervals and melodic gestures (emphatically not leitmotifs), but fails to produce real living, breathing characters. The model for the word setting is very clearly Stravinsky with occasional hints of Berg, but the vocal lines never congeal into the true phrases that both of these composers manage to fashion out of very angular melodic material.

There are wonderful things though as I say - the Act II duet for the lovers is gorgeous music for instance (though feels synthetic emotionally). So too the final few minutes of Act III with its grand opera quintet, Prospero's moving farewell, and the ending in purish Db, Caliban left on the island with Ariel's wordless intonations floating into the air - very pretty music recalling Strauss wordless conclusion to Daphne, and though it accomplishes some of the quiet poignancy that it is meant to be evoke, it falls decidedly short of the true greatness that Adès has offered in previous work. In the end there is a feeling of a lack of necessity in the writing, an artificially, with little coming from the heart - these creatures are being conjured through skill and craftsmanship, with undeniable skill, but the sense of creative strain and effortful construction can't be avoided. Most tellingly and damagingly there's a lack of precision in the orchestral colours and vocal lines that belie the extraordinary polish that is Adès' norm, and the effect is that too often the opera feels like merely a sketch for the "real thing" (which in the event fails to materialise).

Source: Met website

Robert Lepage's production introduces Prospero, Miranda and Ariel on the island, but wait! It's not an island, it's the La Scala in the 19th century, after hours. Why this is a place of isolation is anyone's guess, but Lepage purpose becomes clear only later. In Act II when the shipwrecked court arrive, they are all onstage and Prospero remains in front of the footlights, metres away from them, yet in another world. Miranda is disappeared through the prompt box and no one can work out how. We begin to become aware of the metaphor - the Island is Prospero's stage, and the shipwrecked court are in his play, unbeknownst to them. He directs Ariel from the wings (she enters on a platform, lowered from above with ye olde stage mechanics: she's just another part of the machinery of his stage. Prospero's tricks and spells all derive from 19th century Milanese theatre effects because that's where he came from, and the opera house is what would have moulded his ideas about trickery. The third act makes things very explicit as we are given a cross section of the whole theatre and we see Ariel vanishing people using a trap door. But now the people are the audience, somehow having broken from the spell - had there been some deep metaphysical transformation that I missed (quite possible), or was this just a lapse in the production's internal logic?

This sort of idea has been done many times before in European houses, the stage within a stage, "all the world's a stage", "what's pretend, what's real?" etc. etc. It sort of works here, though becomes the main focus of the events, rather than the bigger, deeper issues that Shakespeare's drama raises, and I do wonder about what aspect of the drama that Lepage feels he is illustrating with this concept. The set (by Jasmine Catudal) is fit for purpose, though has the feeling of highest quality kitsch that the Met find it difficult to avoid, and costumes (by Kym Barrett) have the same slightly icky Hollywood blockbuster-ish feel. There's some fairly risible dance sequences by Crystal Pite.

 Source: Met website

As Prospero, Simon Keenlyside is magnificent. Having seen him live several times, I fully realise that he sounds much bigger on CD and on film than he does in theatre, but up close his baritone is so epically manful, intensely expressive, and his stage presence so commanding that I can only be thankful that he has been captured at short range for posterity. And it seems also that he was more at ease vocally than he has been on previous outings of this role (and indeed on disc) where the massive strain of the vocal writing meant that things could get blustery - he never once seemed overtaxed or anything but completely in control. My only criticism is that while his ultra intense acting is captivating, he is sometimes not specific enough, but really this is cavilling - he was magnificent on screen, visually and aurally.

This opera is notable for it's ridiculous casting requirements - an ultra high coloratura soprano (aka a soprano acuto sfogato), four tenors, all with very high tessitura, and Prospero essentially requires a Verdi baritone (which Keenlyside isn't, but he gets by on technique and dramatic focus).

Ariel's music is composed almost entirely in alt, that is above the treble stave, and it's not just the vertiginous tessitura that is death defying, but the coloratura balletics that are required to be dispatched at this altitude. The words of course become entirely indecipherable up there, but she has by far the strongest musical profile of any of the characters, and one ravishing aria, "Five fathoms deep", the best music in the piece. Audrey Luna acquits her self perhaps even more effortlessly than the Cyndia Sieden, the creator of the role, though the sound has a rougher edge, and doesn't have the floating lovelyness that Sieden mustered. Still, anyone capable of singing this role has to be a seriously impressive vocalist, and Luna certainly is that.

The four tenors were mixed. William Burden made a very sweet toned and touchingly acted King of Naples, and seemed completely unphased by the tessitura. Toby Spence sang the role of Antonio. In the premiere he sang the role of Ferdinand, and I wonder if his recent surgery for thyroid cancer (mercifully successful) has informed this change of role. He generally sang well, though didn't always seem comfortable, occasionally sounding rather stressed in higher passages, but I'm well aware that he can sound great in the hall as he did with his recent ROH Meistersinger David, and ENO Lenskys. His acting was unconvincing. Alan Oke as Caliban is a very, very different casting choice from the soft grained, delicate Ian Bostridge, and probably more in line with what we expect from the beastlyness of this character. Again though, the very high tessitura took its toll, and he often sounded rough.

The final tenor Alek Shrader is also the youngest singer, and was here making his Met debut. Ferdinand gets some lovely music to sing, and Shrader has a very beautiful voice that certainly does justice to the music. He's terribly good looking, just like his love interest Isabel Leonard (who is quite stunning to look at), but also like his on stage lover, he has little charisma and seemed a bit of a himbo. Lepage is probably as much to blame. Leonard is possibly slightly more committed dramatically, and has an absolutely gorgeously silken high mezzo voice (interestingly the role was created by lyric soprano Kate Royal), but text is always subservient to line and making the most beautiful possible sound (which admittedly is very beautiful). With such beautiful looks and voice, she surely has a big career ahead of her.

Comic relief is proferred in the form of Trinculo and Stefano's antics, but they aren't remotely funny text or music wise. Lepage also drew a blank. Very strange. Both Iestyn Davies and Kevin Burdette more than aquitted themselves vocally. John Del Carlo is fine as Gonzalo, though barely acts and his vocal lines frequently go lower than his voice is comfortably capable of going. Adès leads a solid, though not spectacular reading in the pit.

Adès is currently composing an opera based on Buñuel’s surrealist film The Exterminating Angel for Salzburg. I think this might suit him better and I look forward to it with hope as I do with all of Adès' work.

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