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The Tempest (at the Metropolitan Opera)

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Today I saw the HD broadcast of Thomas Ades' "The Tempest." I had heard the first act and part of the second on Sirius sometime in the last few weeks, and liked what I heard. The HD broadcast of what I heard was so much more, and the music stayed at the highest standard.

Director Robert Lepage has set the opera in the La Scala Opera House in the 18th century. In the HD broadcast, the setting for me was neutral: I liked it, but because of the camera focused (correctly) on the singer-actors, I didn't think much about the setting. Kym Barrett's costumes, though, were gorgeous, and the 18th century was a good one for clothing that looked stunning on all body types. (Ice dancers all over the world should swarm Barrett for the secret to avoiding costume malfunction, for with all of the lying on her side and rolling in the grass with Ferdinand our Miranda did in her low cut dress, there were no embarrassing slips.)

Everything about the detailed direction, specifically of the interpersonal relationships, that I had missed in Lepage's "Ring" and that I knew from his other work, both opera and theater, was there in "The Tempest." (I think The Machine was a distracting time suck.) The last time I was immersed in "The Tempest" was 1979, and following the standard explanation of Wagner's "Ring" sources from German and Nordic mythology, I was surprised that there were similarities between Shakespeare's characterization of the levels of the enslaved -- Ariel and Loge on the one hand and Caliban and Alberich/Mime -- and their resentments and visions of grandeur. Wotan isn't as uniformly vengeful as Prospero or willing to do the work himself -- after all, Prospero is a sorcerer, not a god -- but he is split. At least one of the themes come full circle in the changes Ades and librettist Meredith Oakes made in the story: at the end, Caliban is left on his island, seemingly alone and with no female to have his children, but in the scene before, Prospero forgives his treacherous brother Antonio, who, resentful of the turn of events, slinks off the stage backwards, but to where? much like Alberich disappears from the "Ring," and you have to do tally up the deaths to remember that the Rhine Daughters aren't the only ones left.

Ades twists the convention that Wagner uses in "Siegfried" as Mime acts unctuously towards Siegfried while spouting venomous words: here, Ariel sings the contemptuous and insulting asides by Sebastian and Antonio, that the Court isn't supposed to hear, literally putting words in their mouths.

The music starts out discordantly, but at times it became remarkably lyrical, deliberately in the beautiful love scenes between Miranda and Ferdinand, another departure from Shakespeare:rather than using magic to bring them together, they fall for each other on their own, and Prospero sees this as breaking his spell over her, another turn to Wagner, where Siegmund's love for Sieglinde causes him to reject Valhalla when he learns that Sieglinde can't join him, and it causes Brunnhilde to understand a point of view that isn't her father's and extend her love to someone else, which causes Daddy all kind of fury. (The way it's staged, Miranda and Ferdinand literally walk off into the sunset at the end of Act II, even if they don't get very far in distance.)

However, there are excruciatingly sad, reflective lyrical passages especially for Prospero, as interpreted by the role's creator, Simon Keenleyside, and most of what's written for Alonso, who spends most of the opera mourning his son. There are crazy high passages for Ariel that go beyond coloratura, and if they resemble anything, it's the vocal line for Gepopo Chief from "Le Grand Macabre," an opera I disliked as much as I loved this "Tempest."

In the intro Ades was compared to Britten. I don't know Britten well, but it didn't sound like Britten. It didn't sound like most new North American opera I've heard, in which I have a checklist of the influences -- Barber, Copland, Mahler, Bernstein, maybe a little Schoenberg -- and, almost all of which cross into or get dangerously close to Broadway musical sound, even of it's closer to Sondheim than Lloyd Webber. (I think that "Lillian Alling" and "Heart of a Soldier," with cuts to bring them in at two hours, could play in New York.) I've never heard anything like Ades music: despite its range, it sounds to me like it comes from a singular voice. He and Oakes collaborated on a beautiful piece of storytelling.

Keenleyside created Prospero; the only other original cast (from 2004) member was Toby Spence who sang Ferdinand in the premiere and in Santa Fe, but here sang Antonio. Audrey Luna -- what a great name! -- sang Ariel's crazy vocal lines with aplomb. She, like Alan Oke, a superb Caliban, had lots of difficult physical stage action. Among other feats, Luna spent a lot of time climbing around the arms of a fallen chandelier, had to sing horizontally while being carried by a few leotarded people with their hands on her rib cage, she had to climb up the side of the set -- I think she had a line attached to pull her up -- and she spent a lot of time in Act III with one foot over a cage bar. (Think Nureyev in "PIerrot Lunaire." She must do lots of yoga.) Dressed in a pinky-lilacy body suit -- at least Oke's Caliban suit looked like it had some room for padding -- she's also the first soprano I've ever seen who was taller and thinner than the "stunt" dancer who did all kinds of Cirque du Soleil gymnastics on the rotating chandelier to open the opera. Her voice was like the aural equivalent of a rhythmic gymnast, if you include the ribbon.

Ades take on Caliban, while making him a Monostatos-like schemer, also gave him dignity, and Oke acted as if he were a person, not a deformed, inferior creature: after all, he's as much of an heir to a throne as Prospero, and his mother was a great sorceress, easily Prospero's equal, not that any court would consider him so. (It's also not as if an 18th century court had the highest standard of personal hygiene, either. ) Without being preachy or heavy handed, the opera pulled the curtain on some of the nastier aspects of colonialism by having the all of the characters play it straight.

The opera was structured to tell the story, and of the main characters, Miranda is central in her opening scene with Prospero and in her scenes with Ferdinand and in the first act trio. In the last act, neither she nor Ferdinand has much until the end of the opera, as it focuses on the court, leading to resolution. (Too bad, because both Isabelle Leonard and Alek Shrader are awful purty.) Because of the camerawork, we only got glimpses that Prospero is onstage a lot more than when he sings, observing the goings on. Caliban, as a foil, and Ariel, as a catalyst, had more consistent stage time.

It was pretty amazing to have a singer of William Burden's caliber as Alfonso. The role needed him, and though more than a cameo, even if his role was as moving as Prince Gremin's, it was still a relatively small part, like the other courtiers' roles. The only singer who went overboard with the ham was Kevin Burdette as Stefano, but as one of the two token drunks, he wasn't more out there than your average Bottom in Balanchine's "A Midsummer Nights Dream": he was just more out there than the rest of the cast, including Iestyn Davies' Trinculo. (Davies made me reconsider my disinterest in countertenors.)

The choreography was by Crystal Pite. I don't know if she choreographed all of the slithery-slidey-writhy characters in leotards and fright wigs for Cirque du Soleil -- the ones that are ubiquitous in those shows -- but that's what it looked like, and the equivalent in Ingmar Bergman's film of "The Magic Flute" were scarier and less affected. It didn't look like anything of hers I'd seen before, and it was, thankfully, short.

Thomas Ades conducted his score; the orchestra sounded great, with lots of colors in their playing. Deborah Voight did the hosting, and she was much better when she spontaneously joked with her colleagues than reading off the teleprompter. She interviewed Keenleyside, who was refreshingly not weird, Leonard and Shrader, Luna and Oke, and, as usual, before the last curtain, the conductor. Ades was as gracious as he could be -- lovely bass-baritone speaking voice -- but he looked like he'd rather be conducting. She also intereviewed the gorgeous Elina Garanca, who sings Sesto in "La Clemenza di Tito" in December. There was a taped interview with Oakes, Ades, and Lepage, moderated by Peter Gelb, and the three interviewees looked like they'd rather be having their teeth pulled.

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Fantastic job of bringing this performance to life, Helene. I will be attending the Encore performance, and will check in on this thread at that time. I'm especially interested in hearing the full score, so I'm actually glad for once to learn that the cameras will be focused on the singers. I've heard recordings of bits and pieces of this and can't wait to experience how -- and how well -- everything fits together.

Did anyone else make to the real-time performance on Saturday? What did you think?

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