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Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Opera Review: Practical Magic

Thomas Adés' The Tempest opens at the Met.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Ariel--aerialist: Audrey Luna flies high in The Tempest.
Photo by Ken Howard © 2012 The Metropolitan Opera.
In a dreary Metropolitan Opera fall season dominated so far by (dull-to-competent) revivals, the New York premiere of Thomas Adés' opera The Tempest (seen from the very last row of the house on opening night) provides a sorely needed breath of musical and dramatic innovation.

First, the music. Hearing The Tempest for the first time, one immediately understands the appeal of Mr. Adés  who writes in a style that looks back on the very best of 20th century British composition while forging fearlessly ahead. The huge orchestra is used with great flexibility to create a glittering jewel box of sound. Huge intervals, leaps and percussive effects stimulate the ear. The sound is neither strident nor amelodic. The Met Orchestra, thrilled at having a real musical challenge in front of them, outdid themselves at this first performance, playing this brief, but complex opera with relish and energy under the composer's baton.

The visuals were the realm of Robert Lepage, the controversial Canadian director whose past efforts at the Met (Der Ring des Nibelungen and Le Damnation de Faust) have met with mixed results. This was the kind of show that opera-goers expected when the Canadian director arrived at the opera house in 2008. Simple, innovative visuals (centered around a magical version of La Scala) dominated the action, led off by a shimmering cloth that proved a convincing (yet low-tech) ocean for the opening storm.

Above the waves, Ariel (soprano Audrey Luna) literally flew. Her perch: the bright, glittering chandelier of the opera house--a prop that recalled a certain novel by Gaston Leroux. Setting The Tempest in the deliberate artifice of La Scala emphasized Prospero's absolute control over his environment, and allowed the magician (Simon Keenlyside) and Ariel to directly manipulate the castaways. With its visual stage machinery and "inside look" at the workings of another opera house, the production might have suffered from smugness, but Mr. Lepage never allowed sentiment or self-reference to overwhelm the Shakespearean action.

One of the most remarkable things about The Tempest is how the triple plot and complex politics of the play are reinvented as a swift-moving opera that has the whole affair over in just two hours. Yes, Ms. Oakes' libretto alters Shakespeare and has the occasional clumsy phrase in place of the more familiar quotations. But it works as sung text, and conforms beautifully to the sometimes spiky accompaniment.

This fantasy world was populated by  a fine collection of singers, led off by Mr. Keenlyside as Prospero, a role he created at Covent Garden. This adaptation of the play (by Australian librettist Meredith Oakes) emphasizes the mage as a master manipulator. The baritone sounded completely at ease in this tremendously difficult music, moving to both ends of his register for sweet "head voice" notes and showing depth of range that were not apparent in past appearances. His final scene (where Prospero breaks his staff and is abandoned by Ariel) proved to be music of travel and transition, bringing melodic and dramatic resolution to the opera's final pages.

Caliban (Alan Oke) is the largest and most important of the opera's four tenor parts. This monstrous creature (costumed here with elements of fish and reptile) is presented with a compelling inner humanity that would have made Shakespeare very proud. Mr. Adés gives him some gorgeous music to sing: the "Sounds and sweet airs" arioso is one of the prettiest moments in the score. Mr. Lepage gave him a brilliant subterranean entrance: emerging repeatedly from under the stage like some bizarre member of Local One.

Ms. Luna's death-defying performance was all about head voice. Starting with the dazzling first scene,  Mr. Adés writes Ariel as a seemingly impossible part, one that starts above the stave and remains in that rarefied atmosphere for three acts. The singer tossed off these high notes with power and a clarion tone that never sounded shrill--and she did it while flying like a trapeze artist.

Less acrobatic but equally impressive was mezzo Isabel Leonard, who brought some much-needed humanity to the desert island, refocusing the drama on herself and Ferdinand every time the lovers appeared. With tenor Alek Shrader (in his house debut) Ms. Leonard cast a spell of her own in the Act II scene where Miranda frees Ferdinand from captivity. The music in this scene is simple, brief and effective, a microcosm for the lyric efficiency which characterizes the entire opera.

Also impressive: William Burden, who made the King of Naples (Ferdinand's father, elevated to greater prominence in this version of the story) a study in heartbreak. In mourning his "lost" son, Mr. Burden sings some of the score's most lyrical music, including a touching reunion quintet with Mr. Shrader. Toby Spence presents the usurper Antonio as a two-faced villain with a deceptive, lovely voice. The bland figure of Gonzalo is enhanced by Ms. Oakes' libretto into a compelling would-be philosopher king played by bass-baritone  John del Carlo.

Finally, bass Kevin Burdette and countertenor Iestyn Davies contributed clowning and comic chops to the parts of Stephano and Trinculo, the two sots who join Caliban in an ill-fated rebellion against Prospero's realm. Their scenes together are brief and pointed. Like the opera itself, they never outstay their welcome.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.