When The Tempest, Thomas Adès's opera based on Shakespeare's play of the same name, premiered at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in 2004 it did so with the kind of success that recalled the 1945 triumph of Benjamin Britten's Peter Grimes. The critical and popular success of the work made it clear that British classical music was back on the map. Britten's work was hailed as the most important musical British work for the stage since Henry Purcell's Dido and Aeneas and The Tempest has been hailed by today's critics as the greatest British opera since Britten. It has gone on to have a very early active shelf life with a revival in London as well as productions in Strasbourg, Copenhagen, and Santa Fe. This year the opera made its Metropolitan Opera debut with a new production staged by Robert Lapage. Baritone Simon Keenlyside sang the role of Prospero, which he created at the London premiere.
In Lapage's grand production, Prospero has been banished from Milan to a remote island, and with the aid of magic, as well, I imagine, with a lot of elbow grease he has recreated the La Scala opera house in the middle of his remote exile. This enchanted isle is also home to Ariel, a supernatural creature who, in the composer's hands, almost never sings below high C. The result is an ethereal, if at time unnatural sound: a kind of Queen of the Night run amok who refuses to lower herself to dwelling within the staff. The MET is lucky to have Audrey Luna singing this role: a coloratura soprano who ably manages to reach the stratospheric tessitura called for. Caliban is the other non-human being living on Prospero's new kingdom, and by the logic that made Ariel's vocal line seem audible, at times, only to canines, you would think that the composer would make Caliban the lowest of the lowest basso profundo. Instead, Adès writes the part for a stentorian tenor, and gives him the last words of the opera. In the role of this monster, who ends up inheriting Prospero's island, Alan Oke is memorable and quite wonderful in the part. It is Prospero, however, who casts the longest shadow in this work, and Simon Keenlyside will own this role for many years. He sang with conviction and expressive beauty of tone.
Adès's music is complex and subtle, mostly tonal with some ravishing forays into the kind of atonality that does not send audiences screaming out to the lobby. Still, the music very much smacks of the contemporary conservatory; meaning that in our current post-minimalist period the score creates an intellectual, lush sound scape reminiscent of the best work by the best post-post romantics. The storm that begins the work is a memorable symphonic prelude, clearly comparable with Verdi's Otello and Wagner's Die Walküre, two other works that begin with a musical depiction of the powers of nature at their wildest. In general, my biggest complaint with this work is the libretto by Meredith Oakes. Instead of using Shakespeare's words, she adapts the narrative into a series of rhymed couplets. Her choice of this poetic scheme gets tiresome quite fast and it ultimately makes for a substandard libretto. For instance, a few years ago when I saw Phèdre at the National Theatre in London with Helen Mirren and Dominic Cooper, Jean Racine's alexandrine play was translated into free verse, and it saved us from an evening of constant rhyme. Its libretto robs The Tempest of a place among the truly great modern English language operas. Say what you will about John Adams's Nixon in China, but if in the large scheme of things 1980s minimalism turns out to be only a blip in the history of music, Alice Goodman's amazing, poetic, revelatory libretto will be remembered and studied as an example of what a contemporary modern opera libretto should be like.
The fact that we saw The Tempest with Adès himself conducting his work continues a tradition at the MET of presenting an operatic work lead by its creator. From Italo Montemezzi leading his L'Amore dei tre re in the 1920s to John Adams leading Nixon in China a few years ago, this is a fine creative tradition that the MET should continue.