The young British composer Thomas Adès is one of the most talked-about—and arguably, accomplished—composers today, adept at composing for both the opera house and orchestra hall, conducting his compositions as well as major scores by others. At the podium for the Metropolitan Opera premiere of his second opera The Tempest (heard the 14th November 2012), Adès made the case anew for his eight-year-old work. The very fact that the still somewhat conservative Met presented the opera in only its second production in the United States (the first being at Santa Fe in 2006) and only a handful of performances elsewhere, spoke volumes about The Tempest—and its composer’s—meteoric rise in critical and popular acclaim.
The libretto by Meredith Oakes reduces Shakespeare’s original play into rhymed couplets, regarding the success of which much ink has been spilt. Among other considerations, I would adduce, this was done for ease of singing and narrative clarity. But Adès himself has said—not unreasonably—he wished the emphasis to be on the music and not on the text (and thus not to compete toe to toe with the Bard).
Shakespeare’s plays are constantly self-referential. He clearly saw humankind and our world through the prism of the theatre. So it was only natural that Robert Lepage’s ravishing production reflected this and framed this production of The Tempest as a play-within-a play (or opera, as the case may be). It certainly isn’t that this is wholly original, but the conceit of Prospero, the Bard’s deposed Duke of Milan—here the impresario of La Scala, Milan’s famed opera house—resonated. By placing the action on the stage of the theatre—and in front of it and behind it, in that order over three acts—Lepage makes sense of the play’s magic as stagecraft. The final scenes are played out against a cut-away of Jasmine Catudal’s magnificent recreation of La Scala’s interior, so that the action bridges the audience to the stage, as the shipwrecked court returns home, the lovers are united, Prospero is resigned, and the magical island returned to its indigenous inhabitants. The transformation from backstage to the cut-way in the third act is not only great stagecraft, it is movingly appropriate.
The Met imported British singer Simon Keenlyside—Covent Garden’s reigning baritone—to reprise his world premiere role of Prospero. Keenlyside’s approach was interesting, none of the fire and thrill of his recent Posa for Covent Garden and the Met, but stern, cold and bitter. Handsome and usually so charismatic, he showed a steeliness in his characterization here.
In the press, there has been much ado about something in the fiendishly virtuosic coloratura role of the spirit Ariel, here sung by Audrey Luna. While Luna sang all the notes with ease and passion, she might as well have been singing scales as the words were virtually indistinguishable in the part’s stratospheric heights. The surprise for me was the eloquent role conceived for the island’s indigenous former ruler Caliban—a tenor rather than a “brutish” bass—and Alan Oke gave a splendid performance. Clearly Adès was entranced by the character as some of the very best music is reserved for Caliban. His Act II aria “Friends don’t fear…”, written with such sustained lyricism, conjures up the granddaddy of British music Henry Purcell, but by way of his 20th-century incarnation Benjamin Britten and that composer’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra (based on a theme from Purcell). Somewhat politically incorrect, Caliban here was dressed like an Iroquois or Melville’s savage Queequeg out of Moby Dick.
Ferdinand, son of the King of Naples (that evening well sung by Bruce Sledge filling in for ill William Burden), was sung by honey-voiced Alek Schrader, who impressed me in Britten’s Albert Herring last season at Los Angeles Opera. Toby Spence, who has previously performed the role of Ferdinand, sang that of Prospero’s traitorous brother Antonio in this production. Alongside Caliban, his is memorable music. Spence sang with venom his grotesque, lurching Baroque dance of an aria, the chilling “You’ll forgive at no cost.” The versatile and lovely (both in voice and visage) mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard was Prospero’s daughter Miranda. She and lover Schrader definitely made musical chemistry together.
The opera’s music—from the frigid, dissonant storm of the opening prelude to the final quiet magical moments—increases in emotional intensity and drama as the story deepens and the passage of time lengthens, act by act. Adès’ music is at turns lyrical and dissonant, this acerbic yet lovely score evoking the classic Modernist music of Stravinsky and Britten. One speaks—in the Western tradition of great music—of the Three “Bs”: Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. However, in Adès’ sound world, it surely is Berg, Bartok and Britten. But it is mainly Britten, both in grandeur of subject and sound and deployment of contrasting modes of modern composition with the lyricism of their shared musical past. Thomas Adès may very well be the heir apparent—even at his relatively tender age—to the great British musical tradition spanning the centuries from Purcell and Handel to Benjamin Britten, taking his place as the great British composer of our age.