Thursday, November 08, 2012

The island

The Tempest - Metropolitan Opera, 11/6/2012
Keenlyside, Luna, Leonard, Shrader, Oke, Burden, Spence, Feigum, Del Carlo / Adès

Rich and strange it is, but not entirely in a good way. Wonderful music and an excellent libretto... that don't quite add up to great opera together.

Composer/conductor Thomas Ades has an remarkable musical gift, conjuring as varied and fluent a torrent of sound as Strauss or Berg. Meredith Oakes fashioned here a libretto of sound and interesting structure and much in the text and scenic setup to chew on. But they are not, perhaps, for each other. For the characters and their drama don't seem to engage Ades: he gives their expressions audible effect, to be sure, but they are mostly secondary elements in the show's broad aural course. Ariel's turns are brilliant, others more humanly plain, but none guide the whole flow of sound, even in the final act where Ades dials the orchestral stuff back for some intimacy. Indeed only once do music and text wholly engage and the great operatic moment appear, and that's in the middle of the middle act -- Caliban's dream invocation of the island.

This, along with the lovely and evocative finale in which Caliban appears like Capriccio's M. Taupe from the prompter's space to re-inherit the island (with Ariel) does suggest one sort of musical-dramatic unity, alluded to in the program note: the island itself as the central musical figure and, er, grounding presence in the proceedings, upon which the humans' troubles are a passing episode. But while this is interesting and enriches our picture of the two spirits, it puts to the side most of the stuff we're actually watching in the opera... and indeed, that's the experience.

Shakespeare's Tempest certainly has room for this kind of conceit, and perhaps someone else might radically rewrite it to really centralize these themes in the actual stage action, but Oakes did not do so. Instead she very cleverly and librettistically reassembled Shakespeare's story elements -- but still in a very human and human-focused manner. Ades dutifully and sympathetically set these human bits, but his brilliance is in all the sonic doodling he did over and around and between them.

It's an excellent show to see and hear: besides the libretto and music, every member of the cast is a pleasure (though Isabel Leonard's English diction could be more comprehensible), and Robert Lepage, it turns out, can actually turn out a nice production when his video toys are (mostly) left aside. (There is, of course, the obligatory multilayered scaffolding.) And it suggests even finer things in the future. But if Thomas Adès is Strauss, he has not yet found his Hofmannsthal.

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Absolutely no axe-grinding, please.

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