Results tagged “metropolitan opera” from ARTicles

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.


November 15, 2012 6:19 AM |
Battened down, like the rest of the city, in the face of Hurricane Sandy, I am forced to rely on my memories of that earlier era--the weekend--when I could just stroll out to exciting events. By tomorrow I will be reduced to reporting on my reading matter (I could tell you about the rain and the winds, but you are better off watching your TV or your laptop for that). But for now, here is a nostalgic continuation of the kind of cultural reporting that was possible in pre-Sandy New York: 

On Friday night I went to the excellent music club Le Poisson Rouge, which showcases classical, jazz, rock, and indie-new-music in an informal nightclub-like environment. The program consisted of Thomas Adès and some singers from the Metropolitan Opera putting on a few songs.  Two of the pieces were excerpted from Adès's opera, The Tempest, which recently opened at the Met; the others were all settings of Shakespeare verse (plus one instrumental passage) by Henry Purcell, Igor Stravinsky, Michael Tippett, and Charles Ives. 

In what I have now come to see as an eerie forecast of the tempest that was about to engulf us, we got to hear five different versions of Shakespeare's "Full fathom five" in the course of the evening. Each of the composers had chosen to do it in his own particular style, and all five versions were pretty amazing. Had I been Adès, I would not have put my own work directly after Purcell, but Adès--who accompanied almost every song on the piano--is not known for his excessive modesty or his fear of comparisons. And though I liked his setting least of the five, I thought it staunchly held up its end, which is pretty remarkable in this company.  The main problem with the Adès version is that Meredith Oakes, his librettist, has tampered with the Shakespeare verse to make it simpler:  this is just plain dumb, especially with a well-known and already song-worthy passage like "Full fathom five," and none of the other composers was silly enough to try it.

You might think it would be boring to hear the same words sung over and over, but actually that was a big part of the fascination, because the process trained our ears: we were able to listen for how each composer would wreak changes on the phrases "suffer a sea-change..rich and strange," or suggest tolling bells behind the repeated words "ding-dong." Most exciting of all was the chance to hear and see professional opera-singers from this close up, where they actually had to restrain their voices to keep from blasting us out of our stage-hugging seats. I especially loved the baritone Simon Keenlyside and the countertenor Iestyn Davies, but all the performers were superb, and it made me look forward (though with some trepidation about the libretto) to seeing the whole opera next month.
October 29, 2012 5:39 AM |
Those words rarely belong together, because opera is such a complicated form that some bit of it -- some aspect of staging, or singing, or plot -- is almost bound to be slightly annoying or at the very least worse than the rest of it.  But the production of Alban Berg's Wozzeck that is now at the Metropolitan Opera is about as close to perfect, I think, as anything can be.

For one thing, it is only an hour and forty minutes, performed without intermission.  (If only everything, on every stage, could be performed that way!)  For another, it is conducted by James Levine, rapturously welcomed back from his recent illness by a knowledgeably excited audience.  The cast -- Alan Held as Wozzeck, Waltraud Meier as Marie, and Gerhard Siegel, Walter Fink, and Stuart Skelton in the other major parts -- is uniformly excellent, with no let-downs in terms of either acting or singing.  But best of all is the opera itself, and Mark Lamos's production is designed to allow that "thing itself" to shine through with utter clarity.

There is not a single excess piece of set or costuming on the stage:  Robert Israel, who was responsible for both, confined himself to a stark, expressionist design that is filled with haunting shadows (courtesy of lighting designer James Ingalls).  This is the sad, oppressive, grotesquely unfair world of the army private Wozzeck, as Buchner conceived it and as Berg translated it into music.  That music is both forcefully expressive and disarmingly adventurous, and the purely musical interludes (which come, in this opera, between each stark scene of action) have been given tremendous power by the way they are performed:  a black safety curtain comes down during the last lines of singing, and then the interludes are played against that blank screen, so that our attention is fully focused on the music.  Yet this seeming interruption does not detract in any way from the forward motion of the story; on the contrary, Wozzeck's and Marie's painful fate seems to hurtle toward its ending with even more inevitability than usual.  This Wozzeck is horrifying without being sentimental, beautiful without being pretty, and it grips one's attention from start to finish.

There are only two performances left, and, shockingly, there are seats available, because people think they do not want to hear atonal music in an opera.  They are wrong.  Benefit from their ignorance, and go.
April 11, 2011 8:36 AM |


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