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  • Power Exchange: Thomas Adès’s The Tempest
  • Drew Daniel (bio)
Thomas Adès’s The Tempest: A Review Portfolio
  • Prospero: Simon Keenlyside

  • Miranda: Isabel Leonard

  • Ariel: Audrey Luna

  • Caliban: Alan Oke

  • Ferdinand: Alek Shrader

  • Stefano: Kevin Burdette

  • Trinculo: Iestyn Davies

  • Antonio: Toby Spence

  • Sebastian: Christopher Feigum

  • Gonzalo: John Del Carlo

  • Alonso, King of Naples: William Burden New York City, The Metropolitan Opera

  • Composer: Thomas Adès

  • Libretto: Meredith Oakes

  • Production premiere: October 23, 2012

  • Production direction: Robert Lepage, with Ex Machina

  • Musical director: Thomas Adès

  • Orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera

  • Chorus of the Metropolitan Opera

Let me start with a confession: I never teach The Tempest because I regard this magical, maddening, intricate masterpiece as now overfamiliar, not only when expanded outward and taught as an allegory of nascent imperialism and New World encounters, but also when contracted inward and taught as an autobiographical index of Shakespeare’s twilight renunciation of dramatic artifice. Critical customs have rendered these ways of understanding the play—however intuitively persuasive—more than a little shopworn in the process of their wide classroom dissemination. Precisely in its overdetermination as the last stand of the most canonically central Western author, The Tempest thus stands in dire need of being made new. For this reason, I was pleasantly gobsmacked by the 2012 Metropolitan Opera production of Thomas Adès’s operatic transformation of the story, with a sleek libretto by Meredith Oakes and ambitiously self-referential creative direction by Robert Lepage. Adès has reenergized the play, treating its familiar structure as a flexible template rife with possibilities for reuse, metamorphosis, and “sea change” as it gearshifts from playhouse to the opera house. There’s far more to discuss than can fit in a short response, so I will concentrate upon what I take to be the most energetic and consequential element within Adès’s work: the role of Ariel.

The evening began with an emblematic gesture in which Ariel becomes aerial, with a dancer in Ariel’s costume entwining herself within a spinning chandelier that whirls precariously off-axis above the storm below. When soprano Audrey Luna descended from the rafters in a spangled and jewel-encrusted unitard, the Ariel/aerial pun became sonically literalized in an overpowering display of vocal athleticism; Adès has crafted a part that calls for astonishing care and control, forcing the singer to remain within a register that is often reserved for the final alpine arcs of an aria, hammering high Es with a relentlessly percussive insistence.1 If terms such as “superhuman” or “inhuman” risk collapse into critical hyperbole, they remain apt as accounts of Ariel’s literally elemental status as a spirit of the air, preternaturally mobile and accustomed to the outer and upper registers of being.

Lest I resort to unkind metaphoric invocations of Minnie Mouse on helium, let me admit that I am not a sufficiently seasoned opera cognoscente to locate Audrey Luna’s muscular powers within the broader constellation of coloratura soprano singing, though friends have pointed me toward the precedents variously set by Mado Robin, Diana Damrau, and Natalie Dessay. If the conceit of soprano-as-bird has a long tradition, with notable precursors in Stravinsky’s Le rossignol and Walter Braunfels’s [End Page 157] Die Vögel, a more historically proximate example of a similar sonic extreme of tessitura would be Hans Werner Henze’s “Sei tu, Giulietta? O sei Teodora?” from his Cantata della fiaba estrema (1963). But even against this backdrop of other singers and compositions, there was something uncannily singular about the chain of command through which Adès’s vision of Ariel was transmitted into our eardrums by Luna.

For a psychoanalytically inclined Shakespeare critic, it activated a perhaps unintended analogical resemblance: Adès is to Luna as Prospero is to Ariel (and perhaps, by extension, as Shakespeare was to the members of his acting company). The master/slave dynamic implicit in Ariel’s magical servitude to Prospero, with its caprice, its tension, and its familiarity, has always had an implicitly sadomasochistic structure, even as its emotional reality exceeds those terms, with messy needs and ironic longings circumnavigating the hypostasized poles of dominant master and...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1476-2870
Print ISSN
0736-0053
Pages
pp. 157-160
Launched on MUSE
2014-10-16
Open Access
No
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