Tuesday, 13 November 2012

The Tempest, Met Opera Live, 10 November 2012

Metropolitan Opera, New York, viewed at Cineworld, West India Quay

Ariel – Audrey Luna
Miranda – Isabel Leonard
Trinculo – Iestyn Davies
Ferdinand – Alek Shrader
Caliban – Alan Oke
King of Naples – William Burden
Antonio – Toby Spence
Prospero – Simon Keenlyside
Stefano – Kevin Burdette
Gonzalo – John Del Carlo
Robert Lepage (director)

Jasmine Catudal (set designs)
Kym Barrett (costumes)
Michel Beaulieu (lighting)
David Leclerc (video)

Metropolitan Opera Chorus
Metropolitan Opera Orchestra
Thomas Adès (conductor)

‘Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear.’ That was how I began my review of the Met broadcast of Robert Lepage’s production of Götterdammerung. I feared that it would do again for The Tempest, yet, although this was no triumph, save for some of the singers and indeed the splendid Met orchestra, nor, at least on the big screen, did it prove the excruciating embarrassment I had feared, largely due to excellent performances. I wonder how much of the rest of the salvage was due to clever filming, given that the voices of those in the theatre earlier on during the run, voices I respect, seem to have been united.

Let there be no misunderstanding: Lepage’s production was mindless in the extreme. No change there. The half-hearted attempt at meta-theatricality – are we not all tired of that now, unless it be the work of someone who really engages with the work as well – was one of the worst I have seen. All it seemed to involve was setting the opera at La Scala, for no other reason than that Prospero was once Duke of Milan, and then leaving a confused nonsense to play itself out, sometimes in front of the Scala theatre and some (eighteenth-century?!) spectators, sometimes not. Prospero, Ariel, and still more Caliban looked as if they were refugees from one of Lepage’s Cirque du Soleil shows. At one point there is an apparently non-ironic – though maybe I am just too stupid to plumb its deaths – of a filmed couple (Miranda Ferdinand) walking off into the sunset. There really is nothing more I can think of to say about the production, so I shall leave it there. 

Let there be no further misunderstanding: Adès’s stature remains inflated far beyond his talent. Still, that is not his fault; nobody forces others to stage his works, even though there may be a host of better claimants – or at least I assume no one does. The greater part of the first two acts was undistinguished in the extreme, rarely if ever rising above the level of a typical soundtrack for a middlebrow television serial. There is certainly nothing to frighten away even the most timid of horses, though I suspect that even equine or indeed bovine audience members might wonder what the point in such an enterprise might be. There is often a certain skill with orchestration, but then any decent postgraduate composition student ought to be able to manage that. Otherwise, harmonies are resolutely unchallenging – Britten sounds adventurous by comparison – and direction is unclear. O for a touch of Birtwistle! The third act picks up considerably. Whilst no masterpiece, there is greater dramatic focus, more of a sense of responding to the story, and the passacaglia towards the end, if obvious beyond the call of duty, does its business. Ariel must be one of the most irritating characters – if one can call her that – in the operatic repertoire, but at least that her insanely vertiginous coloratura adds a dash of interest. The shades of Couperin work better in context than when taken as a suite, but perhaps that is because the dullness of the score as a whole sets them in positive relief.

As for Meredith Oakes’s ghastly libretto, let there be no additional misunderstanding.  I cannot bring myself to recall, let alone to repeat, its doggerel. Not wishing to set Shakespeare ‘straight’ is perfectly understandable, but the only relief in this banal effort is the unintentionally comic. (Again, I cannot recall a particular instance, so the humour remains a relative concept.)

The Met Orchestra played splendidly for Adès, who, like Britten, except at a far lower level, consistently seems a more impressive performer than composer. (The moment we have a Turn of the Screw it will be worth a change of heart, but I am not sure we have yet heard the equivalent of the Britten Piano Concerto yet.) Incisive, full of tone, splendidly colourful: it is difficult to imagine a better performance than this. If only the orchestra’s talents had been lavished on a more worthy contemporary score. The Mask of Orpheus, perhaps? The chorus sang and acted well too. Moreover, there was a good deal of fine singing, most crucial of all Simon Keenlyside’s Prospero, whose performance at times came as close as humanly possible to moving, given the material. Audrey Luna’s Ariel was apparently effortlessly despatched, a splendid achievement. Alan Oke was creepily ‘different’ and yet unfailingly musical as Caliban, though something a little more threatening might have been in order. (Perhaps that was a matter of stage direction though.) Isabel Leonard and Alek Shrader were as beautiful and handsome of voice as of aspect, the latter especially touching in his sadness and his joy. Toby Spence and Iestyn Davies were as impressive as one would expect, Davies almost managing to convince one that his was a genuine Shakespearean – or Monteverdian – character. If only...

Maybe I set the bar too low, but this was better than Götterdämmerung. However, I beseech you not to take that claim out of context.