The Tempest: Oh timid old world

Thomas Adès’s 2004 opera The Tempest arrives at the Met with a relatively lengthy pedigree of major productions around the world,* a score that is
recognizably modern but consonant and conventionally pretty enough to
play to a Met audience, and a libretto based on a familiar play.
Actually, it’s the Met’s second newish Tempest opera in as many years.
While it’s altogether more credible than the other one, and has some
lovely moments, it still never quite takes off, and remains undramatic
and timid. Robert Lepage’s random and cheesy production doesn’t help

Adès, The Tempest. Libretto by Meredith Oakes after Shakespeare. Metropolitan Opera, 10/23/2012. New production premiere, first Met performance of this opera. Production by Robert Lepage, sets by Jasmine Catudal, costumes by Kym Barrett, lights by David Beaulieu. Conducted by Thomas Adès with Simon Keenlyside (Prospero), Isabel Leonard (Miranda), Audrey Luna (Ariel), Alan Oke (Caliban), Alek Shrader (Ferdinand [Debut]), Kevin Burdette (Stefano), Iestyn Davies (Trinculo), Toby Spence (Antonio), Christopher Feigum (Sebastian), John Del Carlo (Gonzalo), William Burden (King of Naples)

Unfortunately, most of the operas produced today are really old, and most are also, at least to a certain portion of their audience, really familiar. This means that the few new operas that happen inevitably end up being defined, at least in part, in relation to what is happening on all the other nights of the week. For a production of The Tempest, one that Robert Lepage has put in a theater-in-theater setting of Milan’s La Scala (a trick we have never, ever seen before, not once), this would seem to present provocative symbolic possibilities to tell The Tempest as an allegory for opera. Prospero’s magic happens on an island (opera house, isolated from the real world), informed by learning in old books (scores), and when the problems are resolved we have to return to reality outside the magic theater (la commedia è finita). But while some other directors might have pulled this off, Lepage’s succession of effects without causes or expression leaves the setting meaningless–and the story pretty much meaningless as well.

My friend wanted this to be ironic. Wishful thinking.

For all this metatheatrical stuff Adès is not a postmodernist at all but rather a straightforward, mild-mannered modernist who seems to have an agnostic view of operatic history. The production also includes a great deal of alarmingly kitschy images including a couple actually walking off into a beach sunset (video art by David Leclerc), the comically enormous court showing up in giant crinoline skirts and other vaguely 18th-century-ish (of the Slutty 18th Century variety) garb, and some downright embarrassing “tribal” dances choreographed by Crystal Pite (with costumes that feature, er, more bare ass than I expected–not that I have a problem with asses, but I prefer their context and representational baggage to be less, um, racist), making those of a certain recent Les Troyens look almost good. The various elements–music, libretto, theater setting, otherwise straight faced eigthteenth-century-set Tempest, never seem to be speaking to each other. It’s awkward at best and almost unwatchable at worst. I’m not even going to relate the purported coups-de-theatre but will say the best one is the first five minutes, see below.

Not the music and libretto are without faults. Personally I prefer my modernism gnarlier, but at least Adès’s music is a good cut above the sugary movie score-like commissions more common in the US. It’s a slightly prickly tonality but not particularly dense, ethereal and beautifully orchestrated. The best parts where Adès can get into a groove, such as Miranda and Ferdinand’s duet and a very brief lament for Alonzo. The problem is that the score often lacks variety, and ends up being rather undramatic. Adès doesn’t seem to have a good strategy for conversational, connecting passages, which pass incredibly slowly, and despite apparently wanting Stefano and Trinculo to be comic there is nothing funny about their music. The default Adès mode is meditative, distant, static, and very pretty. It would be nice to hear in a concert suite, but as storytelling it doesn’t do much to narrate. Each character has to some extent a characteristic style, but a fair amount of the writing is not at all vocally idiomatic, and ends up sounding more ungainly than expressive, with a bonus of much of the text rendered incomprehensible. As you can see in some of these pictures, there were literal subtitles on the edge of the stage.

The libretto is another issue. Meredith Oakes’s text preserves only hints of Shakespeare. It’s also not very good, as verse goes, tending to be mundane and vague. As my distinguished colleague resoundingly declaimed in the lobby during intermission:

“Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell
Hark! now I hear them,–Ding-dong, bell.”

That was Shakespeare. Here is Oakes’s version:
“Five fathoms deep
Your father lies
Those are pearls
That were his eyes
Nothing of him
That was mortal
Is the same
His bones are coral
He has suffered
A sea change
Into something
Rich and strange
Sea nymph hourly
Ring his kell
I can hear them
Ding dong bell.”

Here it is with Thomas Adès’s music, as sung in concert by Audrey Luna, the Ariel of this production:

I can appreciate that Shakespeare is thick stuff to be sung, but if it’s going to be as incomprehensible as most of Adès’s settings are, one could at least wish for more melodious titles to read. More seriously, I can appreciate that they wanted to reinvent the story but this version is more like an abridged, watered-down version than an interesting new one. Character development takes a hit, particularly Caliban. Perhaps in an attempt to avoid nasty racist stuff (the choreographer didn’t seem to get that memo), he has been rendered a harmless pathetic and his large amount of stage time seems kind of unnecessary. In general, the verbal style is so neutral and distant that the many characters and their emotions are never really defined, and it just seems like so much talking or vaguely nice singing.

“This look does nothing for me, dammit. I looked better as $#@*ing Wozzeck.

The cast is more or less fine, though none really stand out. Simon Keenlyside as Prospero appeared in the premiere and uses the words most expressively (and articulates them with admirable clarity), but his voice sounds rough at times, and the production makes him more an eccentric tattooed uncle than a magician despite his considerable dignity. Mezzo Isabel Leonard and tenor Alek Shrader sing quite beautifully as Miranda and Ferdinand, and their duet is a musical highlight. The best tenor of the cast, however, is definitely William Burden as Ferdinand’s father Alonso, the king of Naples. It’s odd that Adès set both father and son as tenors, particularly when Burden’s incredibly sweet and warm tones radiate, in conventional opera semiotics, youthful ardor (belied by his Civil War general look). Fellow tenor Toby Spence had flair as Antonio, but the tessuitura is high for him. Audrey Luna floated and yelped Ariel’s stratospheric music on pitch very cleanly and displayed formidable technique, athleticism, and stamina, though I’m not sure I would recognize her voice in a lineup should she sing below a high G.** As Caliban, Alan Oke sounded awfully nasal.

There are shadows of something interesting and exceedingly modernist here: a hall of mirrors of representations (Oakes restates Shakespeare as Lepage reveals our opera house, all about Prospero’s magic). Unfortunately the suggestions of an opera about fragmentation and distance are evident only fitfully themselves, and that failure is not so much modernist as just sad.

The Tempest runs for a while longer.

Photos by Ken Howard, who seems to be using the wings’-eye view not seen by any audience members in the theater but endemic to the HD broadcasts. The Machines are taking over!

*Promoted as “the Met at its adventurous best!” I will not dispute that claim, but would like to note that if taking on something produced in London in 2004 and at many other opera houses since qualifies as their most adventurous venture, that says something.

**You know that thing about Isolde and/or Salome being women crushed by composers’ orchestras? Sometimes I think there’s a similar thing going on with post-WWII composers and coloratura sopranos, see also Die Soldaten, Lear, etc., etc. Either that or all their orchestration textbooks have reversed the section marked “soprano” with the one marked “piccolo.”

You may also like


  1. The Tempest is one of the most ingenious scores in all opera, IMO. I look forward to the HD transmission.

    Incredibly complex with constantly changing time signatures to match the libretto seamlessly. Depth, subtlety, power. Great singing. Fabulous orchestral writing. I can still hear the haunting ascending 5ths and descending 3rds of the final strains of this fascinating opera.

  2. "(a trick we have never, ever seen before, not once)"

    "…their orchestration textbooks have reversed the section marked “soprano” with the one marked “piccolo.”"

    Hi Zerbie,

    I am so glad you are never, ever, ever snarky or sarcastic!! Ever.

    Great review. I still want to see it at Met in HD, but I appreciate knowing better what to expect.


  3. What's the big deal about changing time signatures? A change in time signature can be one element in a monumental effect, or nothing more than an inaudible notational device. M. Anonymous is overly impressed with his ability to follow a score. Changing time signatures are no indication of quality or even skill. They proliferate in all post-romantic music and, likely as not, designate a piece as restless and formless. They make a piece more difficult to conduct, and in excess may preoccupy the conductor from larger expressive concerns, turning him into a spastic wreck.

  4. Zerb: Yours is an AMAZINGLY accurate and astute review. I was pretty much bored at The Tempest-and your comments about Ades music being perhaps better heard in a symphonic version is particularly apt. My feeling on all of this is "Why Bother" The Tempest as a play is one of the most unusual, and thorniest dialectic mmeditations in all Western Literature and Drama. What exactly does Shakespeare mean by all of this "play-acting"? And, by deliberately (one must say provocatively) leaving out the "Our revels.." speech, surely one of the greatest, and most philosophically disturbing climactic moments in Shakespeare, Ades and Meredith Oakes are simply perverse, but perhaps he just doesn't have a real gift. The final irony is the incessant sing-song rhyme; surely the sophisticated Met audience deserves better.