I had tickets to see The Tempest at the Met a couple of days after Sandy hit, and while the Met reopened in time, New York itself hadn't, and no transportation to the battered Big Apple was available. But I caught the HD telecast, and was once again impressed with the opera (I saw the superb Santa Fe Opera production in 2006), though dismayed by Met darling Robert Lepage's seeming to serve himself rather than the work he was staging. Here he moved Prospero's island — Shakespeare's image of isolation from the world, a place of regret and retribution devoid of social and political structures — indoors, into Milan's famous opera house, La Scala. Prospero may have been the Duke of Milan, but that seems a lame excuse to resort to this theatrical cliché. Lepage has evidently directed the play eight times, and although he comes up with lots of conceptual mumbo-jumbo to explain his Idea, it's finally an indefensible distraction from the real action of the opera, which has enough metaphorical impulse (such as Prospero as "stage manager") on its own. He still seems to be directing Cirque du Soleil rather than a music-drama with complex characters. Once again: "Lepage aux Folles."
One source of controversy is Meredith Oakes's libretto. At Santa Fe, I wasn't convinced by the modernization of Shakespeare's pentameters into what Geoffrey O'Brien in The New York Review of Books calls doggerel, reducing those pentameters, unwieldy for musicalization, to shorter, more singable lines, jauntily slant-rhyming. The music, of course, supplies its own beauties, but you miss the magnificent language. In one of Shakespeare's greatest songs, was it really necessary to turn "Full fathom five thy father lies" into "Five fathoms deep"? Still, this second time around, the libretto bothered me less, and as with Myfanwy Piper's eloquent libretto for Benjamin Britten's The Turn of the Screw, Oakes and Adès see the story differently from Shakespeare, dwelling rather on Prospero's inner turmoil than on his power of retribution over his enemies. Adès's expert baton and a terrific cast — including the extraordinary British baritone Simon Keenlyside (the original Prospero, here covered in body tattoos), the lovely young soprano Isabel Leonard and handsome tenor Alek Shrader as Miranda and Ferdinand, the moving Alan Oke as Caliban, and tenors William Burdon as the guilt-ridden King of Naples and Toby Spence (the original Ferdinand) as Prospero's villainous brother, Antonio — once more proves the opera a marvel of invention and unforgettable, at times sublime, music.
Aside from the libretto, the opera's most controversial aspect is the high-lying —stratospherically high — soprano writing for Ariel (mostly above high C and as far up as high G!), making extraordinary demands on the singer. Of course, Adès wants a completely otherworldly sound for this unearthly spirit of air. Comprehensible diction is impossible, but isn't that what supertitles are for? Some people feel they're listening to a soprano shredding her voice. I find it convincing, and magical, and pray the soprano's technique is reliable. Cyndia Sieden, who created the role and repeated it at Santa Fe, displayed less effort than the Met's Audrey Luna.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux has just published a book-length conversation between Adès and Guardian critic Tom Service, Full of Noises, in which this most opinionated composer talks not only about his dislike for Britten's operas — which he calls "ersatz"— and other poetry settings, but also insists that The Tempest is not a setting of Shakespeare, but its own independent musical work. My only question, though, is why Adès allowed Lepage to get his misguided way in a production that may well be the worldwide audience's only chance to experience this splendid work. ^