Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Thomas Adès's The Tempest @ the Met

Thomas Adès The Tempest

Irony, or perhaps, uncanniness. Which is the apter characterization to invoke when noting that on a chilly but precipitation-free night the weekend before Tropical Storm Sandy, a real-world tempest, tore through the region, I went with a friend to see British composer Thomas Adès (1971-) conduct the Metropolitan Opera's performance, the New York premiere, of his second opera, The Tempest (2004)? The real tempest did foreclose any possibility of my writing a positive review of the piece right after seeing it, but it has not diminished my enthusiastic appraisal of Adès's mastery of and in this form. The opera, running about two hours and 40 or so minutes and a co-production that premiered at the Festival d'Opéra de Québec in July, is easily the best new work of its kind I have heard in many years, and in its richness and inventiveness of orchestral writing and assured dramatic and sonic presentation of the opera's core story, cements the composer's status as one of the chief contemporary heirs to Benjamin Britten, Britain's greatest modern operatic composer and one of the finest in the history of European art music.

Before the Met Opera's performance of The Tempest, by Thomas Adès
The Metropolitan Opera House, before the curtain rose

The Tempest, William Shakespeare's final play (1610-1611) and a staple of high school and college literature courses, is a strange, disturbing and beguiling work, perhaps a comedy in the oldest sense of the word, which has attracted many an interpreter and adaptor, among them composers, before. It has innate dramatic potential, its vivid, clear plot turning on revenge and romance, as well as the supernatural. It includes characters, like the magus Prospero, the deposed Duke of Milan; his daughter Miranda; the native servant Caliban; and the members of the intrigue-ridden, shipwrecked Milan court, including Prospero's duplicitous brother, Antonio; Alonso, the King of Naples; Naples' son, Ferdinand; and those Shakespearean staples, the fools, in this case the drunken butler Stefano and the jester, Trinculo. Any combination of these characters would make for an interesting operatic scenario, but Adès maintains them all, winnowing their interactions down for the purposes of the opera's momentum, and its music. What also is clear to any reader of the play is its wealth of ideas and themes, among them familial relationships and the nature and effects of power, the role and effects of art (especially if the latter is viewed as a kind of magic), parental love and domesticity, and, as Adès astutely brings to the fore, colonialism, which, as critic Paul Gilroy noted, speaking of the "Black Atlantic," is the corollary of Modernity, and which, as Sylvia Wynter among others noted, makes possible the very problematic conceptualizations of "man" and the "human" as we know them.

Audrey Luna as Ariel, at the opera's beginning
(Sarah Krulwich/New York Times)

One of the reasons Adès succeeds with his operatic version is because he is willing to do two things: compress the play into a manageable shape that retains nearly all of its key elements, and two, step away from Shakespeare's extraordinary language in favor of a more score-friendly libretto, by Meredith Oakes, which benefits his music even as the libretto itself falls short.  Rather than strictly follow the play's baggy act-by-act progression, Adès pares, writing three acts and seldom using exposition to explain or backtrack, so that the drama itself, which sharpens into view, rushes forward along with the music. Another reason The Tempest works so well is that Adès more severely etches the contours of each character, giving the opera a much more current feel. Prospero rages, in vengeance and intoxication, at least at first, with his power; Miranda is not just a defiant child but a feminist; the drunk and jester are really buffoonish; only Caliban has been softened and made more audience-friendly.  For my friend, who plays music and can read scores with ease but who confessed knowledge with English and American literature, especially Shakespeare, I had to explain a bit about what was going on at first, but by the second act he had figured figured out what Prospero was up to, who Ferdinand was and why his courtship of Miranda was so problematic, what Caliban's role was, and how the court of Naples ended up on the island. There is still a bit of description in the libretto, but between the visual imagery production chief Robert Lepage employs, vividly evoking the La Scala Opera House as well as the remote island where first Prospero and Miranda, and later, by Prospero's "art," the Neapolitan court find themselves grounded, and the clarity of roles and the music's own powers at narration, the story itself proves no hurdle.

Alan Oke as Caliban, emerging from the prompter's box
(Sarah Krulwich/New York Times)

My knowledge of musicological terminology is limited, so I will say only a little about the score itself. From what I could make out, Adès's idiom is tonal, but shot through with dissonances, especially in the first act, and richly textured so that it sounds anything but sweet or obvious, and very contemporary while also not breaking the ear. There is an enchantingly lyrical duet between Miranda and Ferdinand, and, my friend noted to me, a quintet passacaglia at the end of the third and final act, when Prospero blesses the coupling of his daughter and the King's son, releases Ariel, and agrees to return to Milan and forsake his powers. Adès associates each main character with a particular orchestral motif, though not as obviously, to my ear, as Richard Wagner, but enough such that a sense of continuity and recognitions develops. One that I was able to note was Antonio's, which struck me as bombastic, fittingly enough, for a character who betrays his brother for power, a title and monetary gain. Adès also sets the vocal line of Ariel (Audrey Luna), the enslaved water-spirit, at the upper-most reaches of a coloratura soprano's range, forcing the singer to produce near screech-like vocalizations that were akin to tuning into a frequency from another planet, in the best way. That Luna not only pulls off the singing but does so while climbing and hovering through the air (when her body double isn't doing so) makes her one of the performance's treasures. Especially strong are Simon Keenleyside, who debuted as Prospero in 2004 and reprises it here; Isabel Leonard, in a mezzo-soprano range, as Miranda; and Alan Oke as Caliban, dressed by Lepage as something truly monstrous, out of Where the Wild Things Are, but whose aching celebration of his matrimony (for it was his mother, Sycorax, buried under the sands, whom Shakespeare recalls), and his failed attempts to befriend and help Prospero break one's heart.

Audrey Lima as Ariel
(Sarah Krulwich/New York Times)

The libretto, however, was the opera's main--and only, as far as I could see it--flaw. I am not a libretto-mane and certainly, Oakes could hardly compete with Shakespeare under the best of circumstances, but her use of rhyming couplets with sometimes questionable prosody and slant rhymes became wearisome after a fashion. Perhaps I was already more attuned to the poetic rhythms than many listeners, but I found myself not only being able to predict what the concluding rhyme-word of each pair of sentences might be, but also having to block them out at times because they assumed an almost metronomic effect that was nowhere evident in Adès multilayered score. In some cases, such as Ariel's famous poem, the compression worked for the music's sake, but Shakespeare's own verse--and in the play, Ariel sings in verse--might have proved the better choice, not just to break up the monotony of the couplets, but because of the beauty of the playwright's language. I thought this might have been an option in several other places as well, such as at the play's end, where Prospero reverts to verse, of an exquisite sort, to declare the loss of his powers, and beg mercy of a power higher than himself: "As you from crimes would pardon'd be, / Let your indulgence set me free."

The cast taking its curtain call, with Adès at the center

Yet even taking the libretto into account, the opera marks a major success. I hope it returns, and if so, I will proselytize to get people to see it. I am no big fan of pre-20th century opera, and many other operaphiles I have come across cannot bear 20th and 21st century repertoire, but this is one opera I think quite a few people might enjoy. Adès, I also hope, will find the time and support to write another one before too long!

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