Saturday, November 24, 2012

Visually Interesting, Musically Jarring Opera

Jaime Verazin as Ariel in the acrobatic opening sequence. (Photo by Ken Howard/Met Opera)

The Tempest by Thomas Adès
Metropolitan Opera HD Live Broadcast
November 10, 2012

Apparently I don't have a taste for modern opera. I certainly didn't care for Thomas Adès's opera adaptation of Shakespeare's The Tempest. Chalk this up to my musical ignorance, but music that lacks melody sounds like a cacophony of random sound to me.

The first thing I noticed, after taking in the spare but evocative Cirque du Soleil-esque sets and costuming, was the fact that the sound was somewhat flattened. Looking carefully, I noticed that the performers were not miked as they had been in the previous operas I had seen. In this case, not having microphones was a blessing.

Wraith-like waif Audrey Luna in the role of Ariel sang in the register of nails on a chalkboard. When she sings "bow wow, bow wow" in reference to the watch dogs barking, she might as well have been howling to the moon.

For me, one of the highlights of the Met live broadcasts continues to be the intermission interviews. Librettist Meredith Oakes talked about the modifications that had to be made to Shakespeare's text. Character relations were clarified, the text needed to be compressed because singing takes a lot longer than speaking, and she commented on the difficulty of singing in Shakespeare's iambic pentameter. Again, I am showing my ignorance here but the meter of each line sung appeared to be completely random, with no discernible rhythm or melody. Even the interviewer asked the singers about the difficulty of learning how to perform Thomas Adès's work. The music was impenetrable, as far as I am concerned.

I loved the Cirque-inspired costuming. Prospero's (Simon Keenlyside) tattoos were the literal representation of wearing his heart on his sleeve: the story of his life and powers is painted on his skin. Caliban (Alan Oke), in a mohawk haircut and warrior-like face paint, looked more old and sad than threatening; the portrayal humanized the character. His aria telling the shipwreck survivors not to be afraid because the island is full of noises, and recounting how his dreams are so beautiful that when he awakes he cries "to dream again," is almost melodic and is a lovely moment.

Setting the play in Milan's La Scala Opera House works as a nod to the theme of Prospero as magician-worker or director who literally orchestrates the action: he causes the storm that brings the ship to his island; he has been controlling and commanding Ariel and Caliban. Even librettist Meredith Oakes works with this staging concept, incorporating the line "Words, words, words," which is not from The Tempest at all, but from Hamlet, the quintessential play-within-a-play play.

Prospero's final acceptance that his carefully laid plan has been undone by the fact that his daughter has fallen in love with Ferdinand, is handled with grace. Less graceful is the moment that the King of Naples, dejected in the belief that his son has drowned, discovers that Ferdinand is alive, and he is awkwardly and precariously hoisted up onto his men's shoulders to be carried from one side of the staging to the other. Meant to be "uplifting," instead it was ungainly.

The closing scene is of Caliban raising his hands to the side of his head in the gesture that he has used repeatedly as the story unfolds to denote a crown, meaning that he has been restored as the king of the island. But the gesture also suggests that he is clutching his head in pain or madness. It is a disturbing final note on which to end the performance. I sympathized.

Simon Keenlyside as Prospero (Photo by Ken Howard/Met Opera)

Well, I wasn't expecting much. I certainly wasn't expecting to like the music. It is the rare piece composed after 1900 that I take a fancy to. But in some ways this was worse and in some ways much, much better than I thought it would be. As I looked around the Met before it began, I was struck by the number of young faces; clearly this production speaks to a new audience and that's a good thing. It wasn't so obvious in my movie theatre, but it was competing with 007.

Adès without the right libretto would have been purely bad. I give full marks to the woman who not only brought a complex Shakespearean play into, well, the 20th century, made it rhyme in a pattern that could actually be sung (Meredith Oakes). I also loved the idea of setting it in La Scala in Milan to go with the theme of Milanese-Napolese conflict, and just the theatre of it.

The music: the first act was so dissonant and so jarring that I had a hard time remembering it was supposed to be conflictive (a major storm, conflict-ridden personal relations, aerial Ariel and earthy Caliban both have quarrels with Prospero). In the second act, I finally figured out some of his musical moves (like many, many key changes, when I thought it was minor key and unusual intervals that only truly expert singers could sing). And at the same time the music was occasionally melodic for a whole line at a time. In the interval, I had some of my findings confirmed by the principals as they were interviewed. By Act III, I could make sense of it, but my question was why? Why go to so much effort to make the music so challenging that few can sing it and very few actually like to listen to it?

I thought of Leslie's comments on previous operas that the plot line in opera is weak, the lyrics repetitive and not as rich as theatre. This work reveals the truth in that statement at the same time as it is certainly not true for The Tempest, which drives and drives and never repeats. I also liked the two drunks who provided (some, not enough) comic relief in a very Shakespearian, and operatic, tradition.

By Act III, as I was prepared for more postmodernism, the opera takes a sudden turn toward at least some traditional forms: the happy ending for the lovers, the denouement à la Mozart in which everyone is reunited and/or revealed, a return to the La Scala set, another appearance by the drunks, etc., I agree with Flor that the Act should have been tightened (and shortened?)

The cast: had a heavy load to carry and acquitted themselves but the truly remarkable performer had to be Audrey Luna, who "sang" notes that I was not previously aware were in a human's range. If I only knew who Gonzalo was, I would laud him too for the low range, but the Met literature does not give the entire cast and that I do not applaud. Simon Keenlyside was worth seeing and remarkable as always.

Would I recommend it? Only to the adventurous. However, I will point out that the crusty elderly couple who were heard to remark loudly after Act I that it was "even worse than I expected" were talking about how magical it was by the end.

Here's the New Yorker capsule review: "In her bland and badly rhymed libretto for Thomas Ades's opera 'The Tempest,' Meredith Oakes drains nearly all the poetry out of Shakespeare's play, a void this prince of British composers can only partly fill. The genius of the piece lies in the sustaining magic of the orchestral writing, guided on the podium by Ades himself, but the vocal parts (except for the stratospherically high soprano role of Ariel and the lyrically pliant music for Caliban) are startlingly underwritten, giving a strong Anglo-American cast - boasting such talents as Simon Keenlyside, Isabel Leonard, Alek Shrader, and Toby Spence - little to sink their teeth into. Robert Lepage's ingenious production is not devoid of Las Vegas kitsch, but it helps to humanize the cold and dazzling beauty of the score."

The music at the start was jarring, then it improved as the story developed. The lovers duet near the end was sweet. But the ending needed a bit of tightening up in term of structure. Some of the verses were inspired and others pedestrian. I found the acting pretty good, especially by the principals. And the staging was inventive.

Our audience here in Asheville was mostly gray-haired and this time they thankfully did not give the standing ovation (a gesture that has lost its meaning with overuse) that they have given other operas, blocking the curtain calls for those of us who remain seated.

What can I say, I'm right, the New Yorker is wrong. The libretto that was needed was a work that could be sung. That's what opera is. Meredith delivered. On the other hand, I totally agree that the parts of everyone in the court lacked all magic.
Lestyn Davies as Trinculo, Kevin Burdette as Stefano, and Oke as Caliban. (Photo by Ken Howard/Met Opera)

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