The Tempest

Thomas Adès, libretto by Meredith Oakes
Met Opera on Demand
Metropolitan Opera, New York
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Simon Keenlyside as Prospero, Isabel Leonard as Miranda
Audrey Luna as Ariel
Audrey Luna as Ariel

The Metropolitan Opera in New York has long had a reputation for staid, traditional programming; big names, both performers and works, and reliable productions accessible to a conservative audience. That’s perhaps changed a bit in recent years and certainly wasn’t true when in 2012 they invited Robert Lepage to direct Thomas Adès’s The Tempest.

The Canadian director was almost guaranteed to produce something challenging while maintaining the world-class quality that the house is also renowned for.

The Tempest received its première at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in 2004 and Lepage’s realisation of it is even more impressive than that first production. His notion of theatrical artifice reflecting Prospero’s thin magic gives us some almost schmaltzy beauty in the opening scenes, only to be stripped away to naked scaffolding as masks drop and ending with an ingenious cross-section of the opera house, with stage mechanics and phony theatricality revealed.

Part of the beauty is in the traditional prettiness of the young couple, Ferdinand and Miranda, as played by Alek Shrader and Isabel Leonard who are stunning both physically and vocally. The court of Milan, which seems to have survived intact the thrilling storm that opens the opera, remain pristine despite the trials they undergo.

It’s good to see a strong British contingent, led by the composer who also conducts. Toby Spence, who played Ferdinand in London, is now the scheming Antonio, with counter-tenor Iestyn Davies as a cheeky Trinculo and the splendid Alan Oke a fierce, streaky-faced Caliban. Above all, the performance rests on the strength of baritone Simon Keenlyside as a tattooed, angst-ridden Prospero. It’s a great acknowledgement by this premier opera house of the talent we have in the UK.

A special mention must go to the American soprano Audrey Luna for her stratospheric screeching as Ariel. She’s as lithe physically as vocally, at one point swimming above the stage without visible aid. It’s typical of the breathtaking illusion that Lepage uses to summon up the strange and eerie world of Prospero’s island.

I’d forgotten quite how good the orchestral writing of the opera is, although no composer since Britten has worked out how to make vocal lines rise above the mundane and arbitrary without reverting to the beautiful aria. It’s a problem that has hounded contemporary opera for the last 70 years.

Still only 49, Adès was feted as the new wunderkind when he was only 24 and gave the world the astonishing Powder Her Face but he’s hardly been prolific in the opera house since, with just one opera in the last few years (The Exterminating Angel seen at the Royal Opera in 2017). Still, if his reputation were to rest on The Tempest alone, it’s pretty safe.

The text is by Australian playwright Meredith Oakes and is a fairly faithful truncated version of the play, with fragments of Shakespeare jumping out and then disappearing into paraphrasing couplets.

There’s around two hours of music and it moves relentlessly with no time to get bored. The Tempest is a very good introduction to contemporary opera, exciting and just the right side of lyrical to not be off-putting to the novice. With Lepage’s thrilling visual images, and an often beautiful score, it’s a must-see for the more adventurous operagoer.

There are a number of ways of tapping into this opera and others at will. The Met Opera On Demand service offers annual ($149.99) and monthly ($14.99) subscriptions as well as a one-off payment ($4.99) for those who have limited time or only want to watch the occasional opera.

Reviewer: Simon Thomas