A simulcast of 'The Tempest' at area theaters

Simon Keenlyside performs a few powerful monologues as Prospero.
Simon Keenlyside performs a few powerful monologues as Prospero. (KEN HOWARD / Metropolitan Opera)
Posted: November 10, 2012

Opinions can be confoundingly divided between those who hear Metropolitan Opera performances at Lincoln Center and audiences at the high-def movie-theater simulcasts. Obviously, cameras rightly favor the singers over the sometimes questionable productions around them. But in the case of The Tempest, which will be beamed to six area movie theaters Saturday, the division may well be a question of urban tastes vs. others'. Or how many fools you're willing to suffer.

The opera in question, which premiered in London in 2004, was created by Thomas Adès, who has been compared in stature to the great Benjamin Britten, often deservedly so. That's a lot of artistic equity, particularly in New York, where foreign composers can still be favored over domestic ones. The British, in particular, would seem to know best when inducing Shakespeare to sing.

So The Tempest comes recommended from a number of quarters both British and American, though recent reactions are far from unanimous - for some, it inspired an incredulity remedied only by extremely stiff drinks.

Among the answerless questions: How could anybody associated with the opera sign off on a libretto that reduces Shakespeare's play to tightly rhymed doggerel?

You can't blame Adès for wanting an extremely clear compass in adapting this fragile story of a deposed Milanese nobleman who develops magical powers while in exile on a desert island, surrounded by semihuman creatures such as Caliban and Ariel. Yet the apparently self-imposed pressure to maintain rhymes forced poet Meredith Oakes into writing lines of tangential dramatic relevance. Too bad the opera is not in German.

In other dramaturgical matters, Tempest characters tend to reiterate their angst, as if we didn't get it the first time. Must we have the patience of a psychotherapist?

And what are the singers doing on a stage set that resembles an opera-house interior, La Scala specifically, rather than an island? In fact, few productions go in for literal portrayals of an operatic setting, and what's the ultimate point of Prospero's unimaginable island, where his old enemies are suddenly shipwrecked? Inner transformation, forgiveness - and in our modern world that happens in the theater. The beauty of Robert Lepage's likable production is that each act is in a different part of his stage theater. When the characters are lost in the island's swamps they're actually fighting their way through backstage rigging.

Musically, the opera's most distinctive feature is Ariel: Clusters of notes at a near-impossible high tessitura suggest a being not cut from any cloth we know of, sung with great accuracy by soprano Audrey Luna. One could almost recommend the opera on that music alone. Prospero has a few powerful monologues, sung by baritone Simon Keenlyside, one of the great singing actors of our time.

But such moments account for maybe 30 percent of the opera. Much of the rest is tiresome, tedious arioso parlando that gives Adès endless freedom, with his vast arsenal of tonal and atonal composing techniques, to express a text that's maybe not worth expressing. The cast is full of singers you'd make a point of hearing on their individual merits, including Isabel Leonard as Miranda, countertenor Iestyn Davies as Trinculo, Alan Oke as Caliban, Toby Spence as Antonio, and, a local favorite, William Burden as the King of Naples. None of them have more than isolated moments in which they're allowed to show their own vocal splendor. Might there be some pathological contempt for audiences at work?


Information on "The Tempest": 212-362-6000 or www.metoperafamily.org, or www.fathomevents.com/performingarts/series/themetopera.aspx. Encore screening 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 28.

Contact David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com.

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