Since its London premiere in 2004, Thomas Adès’ The Tempest has become one of the most-performed operas written in the last decade. Although it is most well-known primarily for Ariel’s cruelly high tessitura, it is in fact a beautiful, unique, and accessible work. Unlike many other modern operatic composers, Adès is familiar with the voice and as a result, the vocal line rarely feels awkward or unsingable (Ariel, of course, being the exception). Meredith Oakes’ libretto has been unfairly criticized for altering too much of the the play – the original play is very long and wordy, and Oakes efficiently conveys the sometimes complex storyline. Personally, I don’t think The Tempest is Shakespeare’s best work – the plot is rushed in parts, and few of the characters are sympathetic. For me, the strength of the play lies in Shakespeare’s poetic and often evocative lines, and the opera mostly eliminates that.
Adès music is perhaps more comparable to Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream or Corigliano’s Ghosts of Versailles than other operas premiered recently. As such, there are some very lyrical scenes such as Miranda and Ferdinand’s duet or Caliban’s aria, both in act 2. Isabel Leonard and Alek Shrader make a very convincing pair of lovers, and (perhaps intentionally) occasionally seemed to dropped in to the opera from Romeo et Juliette or some other late romantic opera. Unfortunately, Alan Oke’s Caliban was not quite as beautiful. Adès chose to cast Caliban as a tenor instead of the more obvious baritone or bass, and gives him some great music, including a duet with Prospero, his big aria, and the last few lines of the opera. Clearly, Adès does not conform to the traditional idea of of Caliban as a crude monster, but Oke’s dark and sometimes gravelly voice didn’t convey Caliban’s multifacetedness. I’m hardly the biggest fan of Ian Bostridge, the first Caliban, but his very British tenor fit the role well.
The Met assembled a truly starry group of courtiers – William Burden as Alonso, Toby Spence as Antonio, John Del Carlo as Gonzalo, and Iestyn Davies as Trinculo. William Burden’s exceptional voice was a delight to hear in such a small role, and Toby Spence was delightfully clever and manipulative without ever falling into parody. Iestyn Davies, Kevin Burdette, and Alan Oke were hilarious in their two short trios – the few moments of mirth in an otherwise serious opera. As the dazzling Ariel, Audrey Luna sang her punishing role as well as one could imagine, and her crystalline voice conveyed the character’s non-human aspect very well.
The only cast member reprising his role from the 2004 premiere was Simon Keenlyside’s Prospero (Toby Spence was the first Ferdinand). Keenlyside is famous for his excellent acting skills, and Prospero is yet another role he adds to his arsenal of Shakespearean characters he’s portrayed. Compared to his 2007 performance, which was recorded by EMI, he has improved both vocally and interpretively. His voice has grown larger and darker as well, which lends a greater sense of authority to the character. Adès Prospero is more emotionally volatile than his Shakespearean counterpart, and while Keenlyside’s interpretation is less overtly emotional, it has become smoother and more subtle.
This performance marked Adès Met debut as a conductor as well as a composer, and he proved that he is nearly as skilled at both. The Met orchestra played his demanding music with clarity but always with a full sound, and the prelude to act 3 and the opening tempest scene were thrilling. The chorus also sang their few scenes elegantly with admirably clear diction.
Peter Gelb seems to value new operas more than his predecessors, and it is rumoured that the Met will see new productions of operas by Nico Muhly and Osvaldo Golijov in the near future. If they are presented with the same musical attention as this recent performance of Adès’ The Tempest, we have a lot to look forward to indeed.