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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Opera Review: The Globe Beneath the Orb

Gotham Chamber Opera offers The Tempest Songbook.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Thomas Richards (seated) and Jennifer Zetlan (standing) in a scene from Gotham Chamber Opera's
production of The Tempest Songbook. Photo by Richard Termine for Gotham Chamber Opera.
Putting together the works of multiple composers can often have mixed results. When the composers in question are both living and dead, the finished product can lack dramatic cohesion or fail to work as a piece of fully furnished art. With The Tempest Songbook, Gotham Chamber Opera have ended their season with a work that manages this unlikely fusion, bringing together the music of Henry Purcell and Kaija Saariaho in a brief but searing meditation on Shakespeare's final play.

This is the third recent New York opera based on The Tempest. The Metropolitan Opera offered The Enchanted Island in 2011, a baroque-inflected mash-up of Tempest and Midsummer Night's Dream with music drawn from Handel, Vivaldi and Rameau. Thomas Àdes' The Tempest bowed at that same theater a year later. This new work combines Purcell's songs and incidental music (written in 1712 for a production of John Dryden's version of the play) with Saariaho's modern musical style. Here, the avant-garde Finnish composer confined herself to writing for baroque instruments: string quintet, theorbo and minimal winds.

The effect of these two composers together were unsettling, stark and striking. At Friday's performance, no-one in the Met Museum's Grace Rainey Rodgers Auditorium was sure if the work had begun. Instead of tuning up, the little chamber ensemble on stage right played deep, dark drones, the first of Ms. Saariaho's contributions to the score. Then conductor Neal Goren came onstage, to lead Purcell's Overture in G minor, effectively opening the work.

The Tempest Songbook germinated with five songs from Ms. Saariaho. The first of these, "Bosun's Lament" was sung with power and force by bass-baritone Thomas Richards. Over the course of the 50-minute gestalt work, Mr. Richards shifted characters several times, becoming a sympathetic Caliban (the native monster of the island and son of the witch Sycorax) an idealistic Ferdinand, and finally a noble and dark-voiced Prospero, here played as sort of a baroque equivalent of Wotan.

Ms. Zetlan did not have as many roles to play--her music focused mainly on the parts of the sprite Ariel and Prospero's daughter Miranda--but she met the vocal and physical demands of this peformance with energy and drive. She is a veteran of past Gotham performances and her bold, risk-taking approach paid dividends in difficult songs like "Miranda's Lament."

This is Gotham's second collaboration with director Luca Veggeti, and their first with the Martha Graham Dance Company. Lithe, long-limbed dancers moved in spidery, almost gymnastic fashion across the raked stage, evoking the magical spirits that serve Prospero and the inhabitants of Shakespeare's mysterious island. They swirled and capered around the two singers, capturing in movement and dance the strange forces at work in this magician's domain.

Mr. Goren showed once more that he is an effortless master of multiple styles, shifting between baroque da capo arias and Ms. Saariaho's experimental modern idiom without missing a beat. The minimal set featured an enormous stationary orb, suspended satellite-like above the dancers and used as a spherical movie screen for projections by Jean-Baptiste Barrière. These projections were abstract swirls of color and light, or sometimes blurred images of the singers themselves, chopped and edited as if captured in Prospero's own all-seeing orb.

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