Director Robert Lepage divided audiences and critics alike with his recent Metroplitan Opera staging of Wagner’s Ring cycle, but he’ll earn back a lot of brownie points with his production of Jonathan Ades’ operatic version of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.” Lepage has brought in a completely different creative team from the his collaborators on the Ring cycle, and unencumbered by those productions’ notorious stage-swallowing set, he has conceived a “Tempest” that respects the dramatic values of its source material without stinting on opulence and visual appeal.
This opera version of “The Tempest” bowed in a successful premiere at Covent Garden in 2004 and was followed by a 2007 revival and a recording, and also got a production in Santa Fe and two in Germany. Having first been mounted in Quebec this past summer, this production will journey to Vienna after its run at the Met.
Ades and his librettist Meredith Oakes have done a highly effective job of adapting Shakespeare’s play to sing-able operatic needs; there are, in fact, few of Shakespeare’s original lines preserved here. The tradeoff is Oakes’ relentlessly leaden attempt at rhyming couplets; apparently nobody told her a true rhyme occurs only on consonants, not on vowels.
Ades, who is conducting this run of performances, has composed a fiery, intellectually engaging score. Though short on traditional melody, it weaves a memorable tapestry of apposite styles and moods. Despite his deployment of a large orchestra, Ades he has also arranged his own music with enough transparency that his singers are never buried under sonic tumult.
Lepage sets his version within Milan’s La Scala Opera circa the 18th century; the magician Prospero, erstwhile duke of Milan, has re-created it on the magic isle to which he and his daughter Miranda have been banished by his evil brother Antonio. Convincing video projections by David Leclerc aid in the illusion, and Lepage’s work with Cirque du Soleil has clearly influenced his use of eye-catching, gyroscopic acrobatics.
His opening is particularly striking. To the accompaniment of Ades’ thunderous introduction depicting the titular storm, he creates a magnificent visual effect of shipwrecked souls struggling in a roiling sea (a vast blue sheet) while the sprite Ariel whirls madly above the stage, dangling from a spinning chandelier. It is only the first of many such arresting stage pictures, another being the close of Act Two, in which Miranda and her lover Ferdinand walk upstage through a forest towards a boundless open sea. Jasmine Catudal’s evocative sets blend seamlessly with Leclerc’s projections to depict the proscenium and backstage of La Scala as well as its auditorium, and Kym Barrett’s lavish costumes effectively contrast nobility with the feral and the supernatural.
The Met could not have improved upon its cast. Simon Keenlyside, who created Prospero in the Covent Garden premiere, is incisive and vengeful, properly dominating the stage at all times despite a voice that is not quite as large as one might prefer in the role. Isabel Leonard is voluptuous of form and timbre as Miranda, and young tenor Alek Shrader, in his Met debut, is a winning Ferdinand. Alan Oke portrays a refined Caliban with very clear, proper British diction. As the king of Naples, William Burden is a figure of heartbreaking grief who sings his mournful role with great depth and sympathy.
The vocal standout of the evening is soprano Audrey Luna as Ariel, whose entire role is written in such a stratospheric range that one might assume only dogs could hear it. Not only does Luna nail every note, she presents such a quivery, highly stylized physical characterization that she seems, appropriately, not of this earth.
The Met will air the Nov. 10 matinee performance of “The Tempest” live in HD to movie theaters in the U.S. and around the world.