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  • Prospero’s Ossified Isle: Thomas Adès’s The Tempest
  • Heather Wiebe (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

When I first saw Thomas Adès’s The Tempest in 2004, with an enthusiastic London audience, it struck me as a rather cynical catalog of successful operatic devices circa 1945–1996. This is how you write a “modern” opera for a large house, Adès seemed to have decided, and in a sense he was probably right. There was the androgynous mechanical high-coloratura soprano, recalling Ligeti’s Gepopo in Le Grand Macabre and Messiaen’s Angel in Saint François dAssise (both of which I happened to have seen recently in San Francisco). There was the expendable countertenor part, which made sense primarily as a fulfillment of some genre requirement. The culminating quintet, a passacaglia, recalled the passacaglia finale of Le Grand Macabre. And the “singing” moment came by way of Britten in the alienated, monstrous Caliban’s meditative aria, palpably recalling Grimes’s “Now the Great Bear and Pleiades” in both sound and situation. But this was postwar opera removed of all the things that make it unwieldy: Britten with a love duet, Messiaen in less than six hours, Berio without mimes. This was “modern” opera that “worked,” and I found it utterly disheartening.

Nearly ten years later, in New York, I was struck less by the opera’s debts than by the oddness of its musical project, but I had an even greater sense of claustrophobia, of an operatic world that was too closed off and perfectly formed. In 2004 Tom Cairns’s production was garish and futuristic, which was partly what brought Le Grand Macabre to mind. It seems revealing that Adès had originally planned to write an opera based on the Jonestown massacre. It might make sense of some residue of 1970s apocalypticism in the original production, which was entirely erased at the Met. Robert Lepage’s production is palpably earthbound by comparison and oppressively tasteful. Set, we’re told, in a re-created La Scala on Prospero’s island, with Prospero imagined as a nineteenth-century impresario, it looks to the familiar past rather than the imagined future. Prospero is a visual hybrid of “primitive” tattoos and nineteenth-century military costume rather than the book-carrying Mad Max of 2004. Even Ariel is less mechanical, more organic. Visually, she’s a sparkling pink hybrid of skeleton, coral, and amphibian, with lizard-like movements. The newly organic quality stretched to the singing as well. Audrey Luna’s Ariel was less brilliantly inhuman than Cyndia Sieden’s, her highest notes less mechanically distinct, in ways that seemed more removed from Ligeti’s and Messiaen’s alien creatures.

Lepage’s production fixates on the play’s metatheatrical themes, inflecting them with the weight of the nineteenth-century operatic tradition. But Lepage doesn’t [End Page 166] subject these themes to any scrutiny, and in any case I’m not sure that either theatrical reflexivity or the nineteenth-century canon is a central concern of the opera. If anything, it’s the twentieth-century operatic tradition that weighs on The Tempest, and while Prospero’s power is clearly at issue, the magic of the theater is not. Where the production does succeed, if accidentally, is in emphasizing the opera’s sense of enclosure, its airless and oppressive character. The effect of Lepage’s La Scala setting—which never changes throughout the production—is less of magic or even melancholy than of ossification. And in this sense, it gets something right about the opera.

Much has been written about Meredith Oakes’s “translation” of Shakespeare’s play into short rhyming couplets. Some have heard this as satisfyingly...


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