By ( | First Posted: Nov 08, 2012 08:18 AM EST

Simon Keenlyside as Prospero in Thomas Adès's "The Tempest."
Taken at the Metropolitan Opera on October 18, 2012. (Photo : Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera )

This review is for the performance of The Tempest at the Metropolitan Opera on November 7th, 2012.

Usually when one reviews opera, the subjects of the critique are limited to the performers, the interpretation of the musical aspects, and the staging of the work. The one thing that critics generally avoid is to talk about the music or the libretto of the actual opera. After all, it seems rather banal or pointless to criticize the music of Verdi and Wagner or the libretti of their works since they have already been canonized and enshrined in operatic history. While the scholar is beyond reproach, the critic who chooses this route will be looked down upon and lose some of his or credibility in the process.

For this reason it seems rather strange that modern opera is not off limits for critics. Many critics have already proclaimed Thomas Ades’ The Tempest to be an inconsistent work while some scholars have lionized it as a masterpiece. While I am a studied musician, I personally do not believe I can delve into the sophisticated dialogue with Ades’ music that most scholars can so I will refrain from labeling it a successful or unsuccessful work. To my ear, the music does seem to be a bit on the slow side throughout and threatens to be monotonous at times. This is mostly due to the fact that I found the most fascinating aspect of the work to be the opening prelude. As the music initiates, we hear muted string sounds that suddenly burst into rhythmically unstable figures of the entire orchestra depicting the tumultuous tempest of the title as created by Prospero. It is a rather vigorous section that is never matched in propulsion or energy for the remainder of the work. The section that comes closest in my opinion is the brief love duet between Ferdinand and Miranda at the end of Act 2. With a continuously ascending and descending trill figure in the violins Ades suggests the rising and fall of the tide that grows more and more intense as the emotion between these star-crossed overs rises. Watching the proceedings is Prospero and the figure in the orchestra almost suggests a second Tempest, this one out of Prospero’s control. The figure eventually climaxes in the orchestra with a loud percussive explosion. Another wonderful moment in the score is Caliban’s monologue in which he depicts the spirits that dominate his sleep. It presents one of the most breathtaking and lyrical moments in the score. Ades’ music does a strong job in my opinion of individualizing the characters as well. The spirit Ariel sings in the upper register with a tessitura dominated by high Cs, Ds, Es, and even Fs that makes the Queen of the Night in Mozart’s Die Zauberflote seem easy. Prospero sings declamatory statements early on in the work that are generally heavily orchestrated to portray his hateful demeanor, but the music relaxes for him as the opera and his character progress. Miranda and Ferdinand sing lyrical passages throughout as they represent the romantic center of the work.

Alek Shrader as Ferdinand and Isabel Leonard as Miranda in Thomas Adès's
Alek Shrader as Ferdinand and Isabel Leonard as Miranda in Thomas Adès's "The Tempest." Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera Taken at the Metropolitan Opera on October 16, 2012

The libretto by Meredith Oakes is a faithful adaptation of Shakespeare’s play. My main qualm with the work however is that it underplays most dramatic circumstances and thus keeps the drama tame. This might reflect the reason why Ades reverts to such languid music in the work’s final hour. I do believe that the choice to make Miranda and Ferdinand’s blossoming love develop out of Prospero’s control is a fine one and certainly plays to the protagonist’s development. It also adds a layer of ambiguity to the drama; does Prospero really forgive his wrongdoers of his own initiative or is he more compelled to do it to avoid the inevitable loneliness he would experience without his daughter.

Robert LePage is persona non grata with a lot of critics after his Ring production at the Met and I would be hypocritical if I did not confess some dissatisfaction with his work on Wagner’s magnus opus. However, I did love his previous Damnation de Faust at the Met and think that his Tempest is the best work he has done at the Met to date. His concept of setting the work in an opera house may initially confuse people but then one remembers that Shakespeare was the one who famously stated that “All the World’s a Stage” in As You Like It. As the work initiates, we are watching from the stage out into the audience. The second act flips the perspective with the marooned travelers now occupying the stage. The third act fittingly brings us backstage as all the backdoor deals that led to Prospero’s initial turmoil are revealed. The final act shows a fusion of the stage and the audience, which depicts the resolution of the drama and unites the wronged Prospero (who is both the audience and director) and the King of Naples (who alongside his comrades is Prospero’s puppet of sorts). The technical wizardry is at its most magical in this production. The initial storm is portrayed with a large cloth or sheet that the characters pop out of to portray their struggles at sea. It is a triumphant commencement of what is to come. The start of Act 2 has the chorus walking backward through the forest. In order to depict their movement and seeming lack of progress, the background moves in the opposite direction. At the end of the work, a video projection on the back wall of the stage depicts a gorgeous sunrise over the ocean that Ferdinand and Miranda walk toward. As they grow more and more distant from Prospero and the audience they become a silhouette, which emphasizes the increasing loneliness of the protagonist. LePage’s decision to keep Prospero on stage throughout the opera watching over the proceedings emphasizes his role as a detached director and makes it all the more powerful when at the end of the work he decided to give up this role and join the rest of the players on stage to be a part of the drama.

The performers further elevated the work with committed and unified performances. Simon Keenlyside premiered the work back in 2004. He has always been known not only for his fine voice, but also for his compelling stage presence. He was terrific in the role of Prospero showcasing a potent voice throughout the early portions of the work and showing confidence and control in the incredibly difficult upper notes that Ades imposes on the role. Prospero does show some tenderness in the early and later portions of the work especially toward his daughter Miranda. One such moment was when Keenlyside’s pianissimi rang with captivating delicacy as he put her to sleep in the first act. Keenlyside’s spent a great deal of time on stage without singing and even then he was hard to ignore. As the King sings about his troubles of losing his son in Act 2, Keenlyside walked toward him in a moment of genuine understanding, almost as if he wished to console him. Such a subtle gesture created a world of emotion that may have not materialized if not for Keenlyside’s tremendous performance.

As his daughter Miranda was Isabel Leonard who played and sang the role of the simple Miranda with grace and beauty. Her voice is not only large in volume, but also assured. Most of her lines in the work are of the lyrical variety and Leonard employed fluid legato throughout. She is supposed to be a mezzo-soprano, but much of Miranda’s role is sung in upper tessitura that suggests a soprano. Leonard showed no difficulty with the upper range of her voice and it really made me wonder what kinds of roles Leonard might experiment with in the future. Whatever the casemight end upbe, Leonard continues to be one of the rising stars to keep an eye on.

The same goes for tenor Alek Schrader who employed his supple voice to complement Leonard’s. He is famous for being featured in the documentary film The Audition but proved here that he deserves all the acclaim he achieved from that competition. His voice is not a big one, but it is filled with lyrical sweep and ringing high notes that may be better suited for more traditional belcanto repertoire than heavily orchestrated fare such as The Tempest.

Audrey Luna has the most difficult role in the entire work as Ariel sings numerous high Cs, Ds, Es, and Fs (and a G at one point) every time she is onstage. Her entrance aria is a rhythmic feast of the aforementioned notes and one would probably find it a miracle that any soprano could get half of those notes to sound comfortable and it would have been easily forgivable if she didn’t. Luna achieves that and much more in what may ultimately have been the most impressive vocal performance of the night. Not once did she sound uncomfortable or screechy on those upper notes; her voice had a glorious ring to it that added a mystical and sublime nature to the evening. It is also essential to point out that Luna spent a great deal of time on stage hanging or being carried around while she sang some of those blistering high notes and she never faltered once. Her passage “Full Fathoms Five” is one of the more remarkable passages in the score and coupled with Luna’s gentle voice became one of the highlights of the night. I would also be remiss to not mention Luna’s characterization of Ariel with wild unsteady movements that took away all semblance of human nature and really turned her into a supernatural being.

The remainder of the cast was equally engaging. Alan Oke’s voice oozed with eeriness that made Caliban an outsider among the rest of the characters. He had one of the most uplifting moments as he sang his reverie on the spirits with tranquility that gave the character empathy. John Del Carlo brought a robust bass to the idealist Gonzalo while Iestyn Davies’ silky countertenor combined with Kevin Burdette’s bass provided the more comic moments of the work. Toby Spence and Christopher Feigum were disarming as the opera’s plotting duo of Sebastian and Antonio and both sang splendidly. Of the supporting cast, the standout was William Burden as the King of Naples. His tenor stood out among the four for itsardent color and its vibrant tone. He gave the King a tragic dimension that made Prospero’s compassion all the more satisfying.

The composer was on the podium to conduct the work and produced incredible range and color throughout the orchestra. His shining moment in my opinion was in the opening storm in which the chaos of the tempest became a visceral experience.

Whether or not Ades’ opera ever ascends to the status obtained by other composers in the medium is a debate that will linger for many more years. What is not open to debate in my mind is how the committed performers and LePage’s insightful production elevated this work in a fulfilling night at the opera.

Other Opera Reviews

Le Nozze Di Figaro (October 26, 2012)

Il Trovatore (October 17, 2012)

Otello (October 16, 2012)

L'Elisir D'Amore (October 5, 2012)

Carmen (September 28, 2012)

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