The Magazine

‘Tempest’ for Moderns

Sandy was not the only storm to arrive in Manhattan.

Nov 12, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 09 • By KELLY JANE TORRANCE
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The Tempest returned to Covent Garden three years after its 2004 premiere and has also been staged in Strasbourg, Copenhagen, and Santa Fe. Adès conducts his own work in New York, making his Met debut in a white T-shirt under a black blazer. For its Metropolitan premiere, Robert Lepage’s production should find the Canadian director some forgiveness for his recent staging of Wagner’s “Ring” cycle at the opera house. 

A huge chandelier in the center of the stage serves not just as set decoration, but also as transport, mood-setter, and plot device. In the first act, its sparkling magnificence is
the prime example of how Prospero, the usurped Duke of Milan, has tried to re-create the refined glories of home, including its La Scala opera house. In the third act, the chandelier reappears in a terrible guise, helping spectators onstage and off to register that the civilized look of Prospero’s new court was only a veneer.

A figure in white spins gracefully on the chandelier, then rises along with it. This acrobat is a body double for Ariel, who is creating the tempest that will bring Prospero’s enemies to the island where they’ve exiled him. Visually, the storm is a bit lame: People pop up from underneath a blue sheet. But Adès’s music certainly suggests a storm. 

Most important, this isn’t a caco-phony without form, as you might expect in a post-tonal opera. And the first solo sound we hear is also unexpectedly traditional: Miranda (mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard) asks her father if he’s responsible for the deadly gale with sounds of overwhelming loveliness. Prospero finally reveals to her how they came to be on the island—and his plan for revenge. They must suffer as I did before, baritone Simon Keenlyside’s Prospero declares, as the brass hints at the trials to which he refers. Keenlyside, who created the role, is a mesmerizing performer: His voice turns tender when he talks of Miranda. But it doesn’t stay that way for long.

Prospero, of course, is the protagonist of the production; but Ariel—and Audrey Luna, the coloratura soprano who plays the sprite—is the real star. As soon as the character speaks, Adès’s masterful writing makes clear that this wraith is fully formed. The role requires much movement, even with the help of the body double, and Luna steals the show. Adès has written a creation whose words are as difficult to sing as those of the Queen of the Night, and Luna made her Met debut playing that role in Mozart’s Magic Flute in 2010. She scores a bigger triumph here. Toby Spence, the tenor who created the role of Ferdinand (the prince of Naples who falls in love with Miranda), and who here plays Prospero’s murderous brother Antonio, has said that many members of the first cast had doubts that Adès’s new work could be sung. So Luna must be guarding her voice fiercely for the rest of the run. Most of her lines are in the very upper range that a coloratura is capable of singing. 

Some critics have complained that Ariel’s words, though sung in English, mostly cannot be distinguished without the help of surtitles. But as Charles T. Downey reported after a symposium in Santa Fe, “Adès explained that he viewed the character not as a human but as a spirit of the air, and that her language, magical as it is, would probably be understood only by Prospero anyway.”

The real magic in The Tempest comes in the brief, but repeated, duets between Prospero and Ariel. The contrast between the gloomy, grim baritone and the sprightly soprano is striking. But these strange duets owe their power not to that obvious contraposition, but to Adès’s contrapuntal writing. His maturity also reveals itself in the music of the only other singer of pure beauty, the Neapolitan king (nicely rendered by tenor William Burden). His laments for his lost son—What fish has made its meal on you?—give some much-needed sympathy to a decayed court.

The third act is something of a weak link in an otherwise sturdy show—although the jokes wear thin at the end of the second act, which has as many false endings as a Lord of the Rings movie. Indeed, it seems as if the work might completely fall apart until Adès bids farewell to the story and focuses, again, on making virtuosos of his singers. The well-
choreographed chorus of Neapolitans in their finery finds redemption through the madness to which Prospero has subjected them, and from which he finally releases them. The always-
dramatic Caliban (hardworking tenor Alan Oke) gets the last word. This low beast tries to sing in an upper register, but it doesn’t come off. Ariel echoes his confused cries—ending the opera, finally, on a high note.

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