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Noises sounds and sweet airs,
This review is from: Tempest: Metropolitan Opera (Ad S) [DVD]  (DVD)
Shakespeare usually has to be considerably reworked when adapted to an opera, meaning that it is necessarily condensed, streamlined and stripped largely of its poetry. Having a kind of musical element of its own, The Tempest however would appear to be a work that is more open to musical adaptation than most other Shakespeare works. Considering its scope and range that takes in comedy, family drama and political intrigue, but most notably having a supernatural and musical element that takes in the spirits of the spheres through Ariel and the baseness of the earthy Caliban, the whole drama taking place on a magical island of "noises sounds and sweet airs" - The Tempest would appear to be both a challenge and a gift for a capable musician.
Adès manages to integrate all the rich elements of Shakespeare's work wonderfully, not just accompanying the various strands of comedy, drama and romance that are rather compressed in the dramatic playing, but making up for the lack of poetry in the libretto by deepening the sentiments through the musical dimension. It's not always the most melodic of arrangements, but it's wholly appropriate to the context of the scenes, never discordant and often quite beautiful in its symphonic sweep. The most difficult element - from the point of view of composition, from the nature of the singing challenges and from the assault on the ears of the listener - is however the tricky characterisation of Ariel. It's necessary that Ariel appear to be a spirit creature from another, higher dimension, and Adès expresses the pain of his captivity in the highest extremes of the soprano range. It is by no means easy on the ear or even entirely intelligible, but it does have an otherworldly quality.
That however is just the most extreme example. Elsewhere Adès shows himself capable of strong individual characterisation that not only enriches expression of each individual character but allows them to coexist and work together. Simon Keenlyside (reprising a role that he helped create in the original 2004 Covent Garden production of the work) is a commanding presence that brings Prospero to life and brings a necessary degree of humanity to the part. Audrey Luna is simply astonishing as Ariel, as lithe and agile in her movements as in her voice (Lepage effectively keeping Ariel almost exclusively floating up and above or outside the drama as a mischievous but otherworldly sprite), and the casting of Isabel Leonard and Alek Shrader as the beautiful couple of Miranda and Ferdinand - the great hope for the future - could hardly be more perfect. Leonard's rich and luxurious mezzo-soprano is wonderfully expressive with clear diction and real strength of character, blending wonderfully with Shrader's handsome tenor.
If the singing goes some way towards making a potentially difficult work more accessible, Robert Lepage's stage direction and Jasmine Catudal's clever set designs play their part in helping it all flow together marvellously. The setting of the first act within a reproduction of the La Scala theatre certainly ties in with the notion of music, theatre, opera and even Prospero's claim to be Duke of Milan, but more than being notional, it provided a conceptual approach to the theatricality of the staging, with figures slipping beneath the platform of the stage and dropping into the prompter's box. The Native Indian tattoos and markings on Prospero beneath his military greatcoat, with feathers woven into his hair, and the shaman-like appearance of the disinherited Caliban hint at some of the underlying themes in the work relating to colonisation and exploitation of native populations without needing to take this any further and over-complicate the progression of the drama.
With the composer Thomas Adès himself directing the orchestra from the pit, working to the strengths of the singing and to the movements on the stage, this feels like a truly complete opera production, one where all the elements work with and support the other to create that particular magic that only this particular fusion of music and theatre in the highest levels of opera can achieve.