At last, an opera. Thomas Adès’s The Tempest is not a multimedia pageant, a musical with pretense, or some brave new hybrid. It is fresh proof of the sinew still left in an aged genre. You know it from the first minutes, in which a high, crystalline chord is shattered by a sonic gale, and Miranda appears onstage, fretting over the damage in agitated melodic leaps, while gusts of orchestral music whip around her voice. For all the spectacle with which Robert Lepage beribbons the Metropolitan Opera’s production, this remains a drama powered by a marvel of a score.
The Met waited nearly a decade to stage The Tempest, a delay that let it percolate into the company’s consciousness. The cast and the orchestra are both comfortably in command of this phenomenally difficult music, and while the composer conducts with clarity and verve, you get the feeling that the Met could manage without him. With this production, Lepage redeems himself from the disaster of The Ring. Ariel goes aerial in the opening scene, hanging from a twirling chandelier as a billowing blue-fabric storm pounds the stage below. Prospero’s island is contained within an opera house—gracious, ornate, and full of trapdoors, fly spaces, catwalks, and landscapes that magically reconfigure themselves. Treating The Tempest as a play about the theater is hardly radical, but Jasmine Catudal’s sets are as mobile and expressive as any animate character. Miranda exits by dropping into the prompter’s box and later pops out of it feet first. Caliban leads his brace of drunkards through crawl spaces beneath the stage. Ariel pricks the shipwrecked passengers with a spotlight’s beam.
The opera is a long way from perfect. Librettist Meredith Oakes has boiled Shakespeare down to a relentless thud of rhyming couplets. At times Adès punishes the singers with unrewardingly strenuous writing, and at others he seems to lose interest in them, distracted by the shimmering orchestral landscape. In the absence of great poetry, it’s up to him to conjure Shakespeare’s island of apparitions and wraithlike noises, which he does with the hand of a master illusionist. He showers the audience with a spangled rain of sounds, haloing vocal lines with shimmering harmonies.
Adès packs a lot of music into each moment—more, really, than the ear can absorb at a single go. Echoes of antique techniques flit by: a passacaglia, a Renaissance brass choir, an eighteenth-century lament winding above a grumbling double bass. He savors dissonance and shrill extremes. He sketches in relationships with strokes of orchestration that go by too quickly. In Act III, Miranda (sung beautifully by Isabel Leonard) approaches her father Prospero to tell him of her marriage to Ferdinand but, backed only by a wisp of winds, quickly trails off. Ferdinand finishes her sentence, his earnestness and elation floating on a cloud of muted violins. “My life’s work is nothingness,” Prospero replies, and cellos rush in to comfort him. The entire exchange takes twenty seconds.
Out of that fine kaleidoscopic filigree of sentiments, characters do emerge. Alan Oke’s Caliban, costumed in tar and feathers, may look like a skulking creature of the soil, but he sounds like a lyric tenor. Prospero, the deposed Duke of Milan, is a refugee from civilization lording it over a fantastical land. Is he a seventeenth-century Kurtz, and are we looking in on his demented dreams? Adès has said that “Wagner is a fungus,” but in his hands—and in the characterization of the excellent Simon Keenlyside—Prospero becomes a Wagnerian, Wotan-like figure, striding over his realm with a big stick and a sonorous baritone, vainly trying to control his rebellious daughter and confusing vengeance and justice.
Adès’s most magical creation is Ariel, who levitates both in body and voice. She sings in the register of sprites, so high and soft as to float nearly out of the range of human hearing (and far beyond any singer’s ability to distinguish syllables). Get the casting wrong and you’re in for a long night of shrill squeaks, but Audrey Luna surfs on clouds, and in the final scene, her offstage voice blends with the orchestra’s eerie whistle, making it clear that while human order is restored, the isle remains a perpetually enchanted place.