Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Taxidermy Tempest - Adès at the Met

What would Robert Lepage make of Thomas Adès's The Tempest ? The Tempest is inherently dramatic, given its Shakespearean origins, and  Adès's music soars to sublime, supernatural heights.  The Met is wealthier than any other house, and Lepage has a penchant for expensive machines..This was an opportunity for the Met to use its resources to craete something truly magical.

Instead it proved to be a grotesque, proving yet again that throwing money at things means nothing if there's no vision behind it.  Imagine a Mies van der Rohe masterpiece with glorious vistas. Then stuff  it full to bursting with discards from a shabby amateur dramatics prop room.

 Lepage's concept is built round a mock-up of the Teatro alla Scala, on the dubious premise that Prospero once lived in Milan. However, La Scala didn't exist in Shakespeare's time. Why are the costumes facsimilies of late 19th century Italian opera?  " Milan" and "Naples" are symbols of temporal  power, rendered impotent.  The Tempest is allegory, not history.  In many ways it  is the most "English" of operas. Furthermore, Shakespeare deliberately locates it on a mythical island in a mythical ocean, where nature spirits operate beyond the confines of civilization.  Central to the plot, and to Adès's music is the cosmic storm.  Adès's music sizzles and spins with supernatural energy. Lepage smothers it in formaldehyde, turning it to taxidermy.
The Tempest is Adès's  finest achievement. How could he have countenanced this? He might as well have replaced his music with elevator muzak, for all the relevance this production had to the opera. Lepage has direccted the stage play many times. How could he have misunderstood it so completely? Perhaps he's making a reference to the artficial nature of theatre, which might work with many operas, but not for something as esoteric as The Tempest. One wonders if composer and director were hypnotized by the Met aesthetic of money before taste. Some opera goers could not care less about art, music or drama. Ironically, the same audiences who wail at "Regie" will not notice that Lepage's pointless staging and costumes are the worst form of directoral excess.

Because The Tempest predicates on psychic imbalance and distorted reality, Adès's  music is finely tuned to capture this distorted reality. Cadences rise madly up and down the scale, pitches switch suddenly, key changes occur when you least expect. Adès always conducts his own music better than he conducts any othe composer, so I shut my eyes to concentrate on the orchestra. But listen to the Royal Opera House recording, where he's more spontaneous. At the Met he doesn't take risks, and doesn't fully engage with the wild fantasy.
The vocal lines are set counter-intuitively, emphasizing words out of syntax.  Ariel and Caliban have the most difficult music because they are supernatural beings who aren't supposed to function in normal terms. The original Ariel, Cynthia Sieden, was an unusually high coloatura, but she had to train her voice specially to sing the part, and do excercises to recover afterwards, but she sang with a quite incredible beauty, her interpretation informed by her extensive experience in baroque roles, which are full of bizarre characters. Audrey Luna sings, but doesn't create the part. "Full Fathoms Five" drifted past, though it's integral to the plot and Adés writes some of his most glorious music for it. Indeed, the Guardian ignored it altogether. But  heroic efforts would have been in vain in this production. Lepage relies too much on mechanical effects to bother about singing or acting, and most of this cast were too inexperienced to override him.

Simon Keenlyside, however, created the role in the original Royal Opera House production. He relishes its challenges and develops Prospero into a plausible human being. He has the range and the flexibility to cope with the constant convoultions. He conveys genuine emotional depth. All credit to the felt tip pen tattoo artist, but the costume concept made Keenlyside look like a monument defaced by graffiti, rather a telling image for the production as a whole. The original  Caliban was created by  Ian Bostridge, whose unique voice brought out the alien strangeness of Caliban's personality, tragic and demonic by turns, the voice shift shaping almost as much as Ariel's but in a lower register. Caliban is a counterpart to Prospero, even though he doesn't have as much to sing, so it takes a tenor with Bostridge's intuitive feel for the surreal to develop the part for maximum impact. Alan Oke has the notes, but not the craziness, and is no match for Keenlyside, worthy as he is. As Adés said himself:"This Caliban is different".

On the other hand, maybe Met audiences don't want challenge, however integral it is to the drama. Toby Spence impressed, as did Kevin Burdette and Iestyn Davies, but the rest of the cast was hampered by the appalling libretto (Meredith Oakes). Humour certainly has a place in this opera, but this text is just plain daft. In theory, one might create a staging which turned this weakness into a virtue. The libretto can be overcome because Adés's  music ignores it in favour of his own musical waywardness. But it would take a much better director than Lepage to direct singers to sing the spirit of what they are singing rather than  just the words. Good direction is all the more important in a production which relies too much on props and mindless costumes. Adès's The Tempest is a radical but lovely piece of music, but Lepage and the Met have once again denatured art and brought it down to the level of pantomime. It's not strictly their fault aloner, but that of an audience that prefers costumes to creativity.

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