Composer: Thomas Adès
Conductor: Thomas Adès
Producer: Robert Lepage
Prospero: Simon Keenlyside
Miranda: Isabel Leonard
Ariel: Audrey Luna
Caliban: Alan Oke
Even if the HD screenings of Don Giovanni and Salome on the Lincoln Plaza all the way back in September were fun, there's nothing like attending a performance live INSIDE the Metropolitan Opera house. After willingly skipping Anna Netrebko in yet another Donizetti and unwillingly missing Renée Fleming in Otello, it suddenly looked like the long-delayed opening of my personal 2012-2013 Met season would be Thomas Adès' The Tempest, and I frankly couldn't not have imagined much better company, including my friend Nicole who was serendipitously back in the Big Apple for a few days and made all of the following possible.
While I was for sure looking forward to an exciting matinee at the Met, I certainly did not have the slightest inkling of the kind of unforgettable afternoon we would end up spending there, and in so many unexpected ways too. Looking back about the whole thing, I can now tell that the slow but steady metamorphosis on our standing room tickets into actual seats into Parterre seats before we ended up in the first row of the center box - next to quite a dashing figure too - should have made it clear that this would not be any ordinary opera outing. And it was not.
A few days earlier I had had the pleasure of attending a terrific, if occasionally challenging, chamber music concert featuring Thomas Adès' music in a little church in my neighborhood with the composer himself in attendance. That had done nothing but whet my appetite even more for the promised Tempest. Shakespeare's play has never been one of my favorites, but Adès' œuvre has been catching my attention for a while now, which is no small compliment from the reluctant contemporary music lover that I am. So on Saturday afternoon, we literally settled in the best seats in the house while still figuratively remaining at the very edge of them.
The furious storm that begins the opera - Ironically a natural calamity quite familiar to New Yorkers these days - was a truly spectacular opening with a dramatic raging ocean, an out-of-control chandelier, frantically drowning victims, cool light effects and wild dissonances galore. It was utter chaos at its best. And while the rest of the performance did not always live up to its stunning kick off, there was still plenty to love.
Simon Keenlyside's effortlessly authoritative presence and uncommonly assured singing made him the ideal Prospero, and it is no wonder that Adès designed the role especially for him. Even when he was silently sitting on one side of the stage watching the unfolding action, you couldn't take your eyes off of him. When his character came alive, he superbly embodied a bitter man unable to find any peace, a powerful magician unhesitant to use his many tricks and a devoted father ready to do anything for his daughter's happiness.
As his daughter Miranda, mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard was the warm, calming voice after the storm, graciously and confidently handling some pretty stressful vocal demands. Not as stressful as the ones put upon coloratura soprano Audrey Luna though, who spent the first act breathlessly performing dazzling, and incomprehensible, acrobatics in the highest possible range, to the point where even Prospero had to shout out "That's enough, Ariel!" That certainly was.
Among the unanimously strong and perfectly cast singers, Alan Oke particularly stood out as Caliban, accomplishing the remarkable feat of turning his unsavory vengeful creature into an almost sympathetic character. The Italian aristocrats all came through very well, and Stefano and Trinculo were a lot of fun to watch. The Met chorus was - What else? - excellent.
While the sets were colorful and imaginative, the concept of the "play within the play", with Prospero directing the action, was not exactly ground-breaking, but at least it worked for the most part. To have La Scala's opera house for background as a hint to the city of Milan, for example, was a nice, if a bit heavy-handed, touch. Other moments were simply beautiful in an understated sort of way, like when after their lovely love duet Miranda and Ferdinand walked off in a delicately promising landscape.
If the décors did not disappoint, the libretto could have used some improvement. Of course, it would have been a losing battle to use Shakespeare's original text, but there had to be a better option than those rhyming couplets. Instead of suggesting poetry, which was presumably the goal, the characters' parts often sounded contrived and numbing. A more naturalistic approach would probably have paid off better.
But the music. Ah, the music. That's where it's really at. With a boldly modern, incredibly versatile and immediately evocative score, Adès has created a popular opera that brilliantly mixes out-worldly magic and human emotions, bringing unique characters to vibrant musical life: The conflicted Prospero, the high-flying Ariel, the lyrical Caliban, the sweet young couple, the orderly Italian court, the clueless servants. There was a lot going on, but every sound had a specific purpose, which it fulfilled without fuss. The orchestra played superbly under the composer's baton, reminding us, if need be, how limitless their collective talent really is.
So yes, this was definitely a winning opera, and we were definitely at the right place at the right time. Or so we thought.
While we were expecting the opera itself to be an exceptional adventure, we did not expect to have to put up with an extra soundtrack that was definitely not part of the score. But that's what happened when, after the mighty storm washed off and things quieted down onstage, a woman in the box next to us started snoring as loudly as a drunken sailor. Now why would somebody spend a few hundred bucks for a prime opera seat to do something she could accomplish at home just as well and for free? I don't know, and that was frankly the last of my worries at that point.
After waking up during the short pause before the second act, giving us all hope that the unfortunate episode had just been a brief lapse of attention and not the sign of a pattern, she proceeded to promptly prove us all wrong by falling asleep and snoring again, only more loudly, effectively ruining the second act. Since turning around a few times to her friend had not worked, I gave her a piece of my mind as soon as the lights came up for intermission, just as she was being whisked away and her seatmate was staring at me in apparent disarray because she "hadn't noticed" the noise. Really?
The hard-earned happy ending of the whole affair was that all was quiet in Box 28 during the third act, and we also got to enjoy the fun company of our charming chance companion in misery, who was a downright arresting sight himself from his fancy Barneys snakeskin boots to his cheap but so stylish feather hat. Not to mention that he was rocking his mini-skirt better than most catwalk top models ever have. And I am not saying that just because he had gallantly backed me up during my little frustrated outburst before, well, storming off to talk to the house manager to make sure we'd get to hear at least the last act in peace. And we did. Thankfully.