Adès, Oakes, Lepage

Watching and hearing the Metropolitan Opera high definition broadcast of The Tempest, I wonder “whose” Tempest to call it.

  • If you listen to Joseph Kerman—who says the composer is the dramatist–you’d say it belongs to Thomas Adès: the composer
  • A big part of his adaptation is its approach to language, in which case you’d turn to Meredith Oakes: the librettist.
  • And of course this powerful presentation is another masterwork from Robert Lepage, the director.

Acrobat Jaime Verazin performs as Ariel. Photograph: Ken Howard/AP (note, this is from an earlier production in Britain, not the one in NYC)

Each of them has a great deal to say about this spectacular production of a fascinating work.  As you can probably tell I am very impressed, moved, delighted.  Having read a few reviews in anticipation of going to the theatre Saturday, I wasn’t expecting much.  Reviews were conflicted, and no one seemed terribly impressed either by the music or the text.  I heard mutterings about Ariel’s high tessitura, the difficult music, the short couplets.  Some noticed a circus element perhaps because they know of Lepage’s history; but nobody really seemed very excited by the work of any of these three.  And that’s a shame, considering what I believe: that the opera is quite a spectacular success, and its Met Production that I saw broadcast, a triumph.

If you’re the sort of person who when confronted with something ambiguous that might confuse you or something difficult that challenges you, frown and close your mind, then don’t see this.  It’s not precisely Shakespeare.  But compared to such operas as Verdi’s Macbeth or Otello, Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette, or Britten’s A Midsummernight’s Dream, I would venture to say that it’s the finest operatic adaptation of Shakespeare yet written.

I like the short couplets.  No, they’re not Shakespeare.  Oakes has changed the text, and that’s a good thing.  As written, the longer lines are simply not singable.  I am flabbergasted at how singable this libretto is, and unsure whom to credit –between composer Adès and librettist Oakes—for the magnificent arioso.  I was often reminded of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande: not because the music sounds like Debussy, but because the pace and the texture are so spare, fast moving, hewing close to the text.  Every other adapter veers into purely musical effects, giving singers their moments, their high notes, and in the process slowing everything down.

I am very fond of Lepage’s work on The Tempest.  We’re inside a replica of La Scala.  Why?  I’ve read commentators connecting it to the characters from Milan, missing the more fundamental subject of this play and its adaptation.  Prospero is often seen as an analogue for Shakespeare himself, his references to magic actually encompassing the illusions of the theatre:

You do look, my son, in a moved sort,
As if you were dismay’d: be cheerful, sir.
Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Ye all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep. Sir, I am vex’d;
Bear with my weakness; my, brain is troubled:
Be not disturb’d with my infirmity:
If you be pleased, retire into my cell
And there repose: a turn or two I’ll walk,
To still my beating mind. 

“The great globe itself” could be “the great Globe itself:” one of the theatres where Shakespeare’s works were presented.  Theatre is always a microcosm, but in this case it’s extra-special, so that Lepage’s choice is profound and particularly stunning in its execution.  This play is about illusion and magic, particularly theatrical magic, as Shakespeare retrospectively (this being his last play) contemplates his art and saying farewell to his art.  Lepage gave us magic, tender emotion, nostalgia, and sentiment appropriate to such big subjects.

As I said, I don’t know which of those three to put on the highest pedestal, to whom to attribute my joy.   And so I shall see it as a collaboration between Oake & Adès, brilliantly fulfilled in the interpretation of Lepage.

I find it hard to believe that I’ve never seen such a skilful operatic setting from a play I knew and loved: so faithfully do Adès and Oakes bring us something resembling and celebrating Shakespeare’s play.  Otello is a travesty in comparison, while the other operas I listed above are like clown-shows masquerading as tragedies.  You may have noticed that I omitted Falstaff, an opera that I would call the most successful adaptation until this one came along.  I don’t think one should have to choose between them, of course, so I’ll stop there.

I think Oakes / Adès fixed one of my chief problems with Shakespeare’s play, namely where he leaves Taliban.  We lose Prospero’s big epilogue (which isn’t singable, so I shouldn’t have been surprised), and indeed Prospero surrenders the stage.  How curious.

Caliban, upon whose island Prospero had staged his elaborate lesson to the royal court, inherits his rightful reward, namely the empty island.  The voice of Ariel, newly freed, echoes in the distance.  While I can’t pretend I remember exactly what it sounded like, those last notes of hers (Ariel is played by a coloratura soprano) stayed in my head for quite awhile.  I’d heard people perplexed by the ending: people who couldn’t have known the play too well.  No it’s not what Shakespeare wrote.  But I think I prefer it.

There’s much beauty in the music, yet it’s spare, never taking an extra ten seconds simply for a musical effect. We’re always building the drama.  Adès makes Debussy seem self-indulgent in his economical design.

Simon Keenlyside’s Prospero commands the stage for most of the opera.  This is a stout presence, larger-than-life, the way a magician should be, as awe-inspiring as a Gandalf or a Merlin.


Simon Keenlyside as Prospero. Photograph: Ken Howard/AP

Two unearthly voices were for me the chief joys of this production.  Audrey Luna’s Ariel, she of the unbelievably high tessitura, made for a remarkable kind of music such as I’ve never heard.  I need to see the score, to know just how high, and I’d like to know how she approached it, as it wasn’t always full-voiced, but sometimes done in a lighter sound.  But Luna was unforgettable.

And then there was Alan Oke’s Caliban, a familiar voice from the COC’s Death in Venice.  He looked like a Mohawk Papageno, sympathetic with a great deal of edge.  The singing was lovely, not quite as stratospheric as Luna’s; but Oke’s acting was impossible to resist, certainly my favourite.

I had to read the names when I heard another familiar voice, namely William Burden, who had been Jupiter in Semele in Toronto earlier this year.  I found Burden to be extraordinarily moving, with a wonderfully plaintive shape to his phrasing. His grief—for his missing son—is mostly underplayed even in close-up, but he used his voice to great advantage.

While I’m sorry I can’t see this in person, inside the theatre, that miniscule concern is washed away in the joyful discovery of a new work and a new voice, namely Thomas Adès.

There’s an encore showing of the broadcast if you’re interested, different dates depending on what country you’re in.

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4 Responses to Adès, Oakes, Lepage

  1. Much as I enjoyed The Tempest Reimann’s Lear would still get my vote for top WS opera

  2. Pingback: Pomegranate | barczablog

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