The Tempest at the Met
It is an odd feeling to be completely out of step with the rest of an audience. Last night, at the performance of Thomas Adès's The Tempest at the Metropolitan Opera, I sometimes felt I was the only person in the entire auditorium who wasn't wildly enthusiastic.
It's not that I hated the opera, or even disliked it. The music was always stirring, sometimes strikingly lovely, occasionally touching. The performances couldn't be beat: Audrey Luna, as Ariel, did astonishing things with her voice and body; Alan Oke, as Caliban, managed to be both creepy and pitiable; Simon Keenlyside was a powerful, melancholy, beautifully rich-voiced Prospero; and Toby Spence was wonderfully evil as Antonio, portraying him as a kind of sleazy corporate backstabber. Even the last-minute guest-singer, Bruce Sledge, who replaced William Burden as the King of Naples, had a notably terrific tenor voice.
Except for the opening scene, which was a delightfully inventive version of a storm-tossed sea (with great music to match it), I could have done without Robert Lepage's overly busy staging. The theater gimmick he employed for the sets--rows of red-plush opera seats, huge backstage machinery, stage-lights and other obvious props--made no sense in the context of the opera's island setting, and if it was meant to evoke Shakespeare's departure from the stage in Prospero's final renunciation speech, well, Shakespeare knew how to do such things a lot more delicately; Lepage's decision to crush the theatrical metaphor into our faces essentially ruined it as a metaphor. Even more incomprehensible were the hordes of extra people onstage. The second act opened with something like a ballroom scene, complete with numerous women in long gowns, as if the ship Ferdinand and his father took from Naples to Prospero's island in the sixteenth century (when women were unheard of on ships, not to mention onstage) was essentially the downed Titanic. Who were these women, in the Tempest plot? And who were all those sprites dancing around the stage, when we know from Shakespeare that Ariel, the only spirit on the island, had to produce all the special effects for Prospero by herself?
But that was the real problem: what we knew from Shakespeare had no relevance here. I would have been happier if Adès had chosen to call his opera The Storm, say, and let me pick up the stolen elements of the Shakespeare story on my own--but who chooses to take over Shakespeare just for the plot? Verdi and Rossini and a million others, you will say; but they didn't have the choice of doing it in English, and besides, Verdi's Macbeth has a far greater relationship to its source story than this does to the scripted Tempest. A big part of the reason is Meredith Oakes's stark redoing of the language (no doubt approved and perhaps even ordered by Adès himself). She has reduced all the beautiful lines of poetry to a kind of doggerel in rhyming couplets: in a libretto where Caliban says to Prospero, "You beat and strike me / You do not like me," we seem a lot closer to the realm of Doctor Seuss than to the world of Shakespeare.
When I complained about such things at the intermission, the response of all my friends (and there were surprisingly many of them at last night's performance) was essentially oh, Wendy, get over it. "Don't compare," one advised. So I sat through the last act trying not to compare, attempting to imagine that I was enjoying a completely original spectacle, and to a certain extent this worked. But my effort pretty much broke down when we got to Prospero's renunciation speech--one of my favorite theatrical speeches of all time--and the single abbreviated line "Now our revels are ended" was the only thing that made it through the wreckage. I understand that you can't write music to iambic pentameter, but wouldn't it have been possible to preserve more of Shakespeare's language in an English-language opera?
Still, I have to say--as I said in relation to the Poisson Rouge appetizer I attended a couple of weeks ago--that the Adès score holds its own against more well-established operas. And by this standard even the specific production was not terrible: I would rather go back to The Tempest three times than be forced to sit through another minute of the recent Met versions of Salomé or Tales of Hoffmann or Damnation of Faust. This is worth something, perhaps even a great deal--the ability of a modern composer to stand up against Strauss and Offenbach and Berlioz--and Thomas Adès deserves to take a bow for it.