Adès’ “Tempest” in HD Buffeted by Close-Ups – and Intermission

United StatesUnited States Adès, The Tempest: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera, Thomas Adès (conductor), Robert Lepage (production), Gary Halvorson (director). Met Live in HD encore broadcast to the Galaxy Theatre, Gig Harbor, Washington, 28.11.2012. (BJ)

Attending this encore screening of The Tempest left me in several minds about both the work and certain aspects of the Met’s Live in HD presentations.

During the past decade or so, I have greatly enjoyed about half of the works by Thomas Adès that I have heard—notably America, which he wrote in 1999 for the New York Philharmonic’s millennial celebration, and The Four Quarters (not a typo!), composed in 2010 for Carnegie Hall. I should not go as far as Melanie Eskenazi when she reviewed the 2004 world premiere production of The Tempest at the Royal Opera House in tones of caustic dismissal, but I found that same 50/50 proportion of enjoyment and non-enjoyment holding good during the performance of this widely acclaimed opera. The first half of the work seemed to be made up of largely ungainly and unconvincing music leavened by some moments of beauty and dramatic power—but after intermission the balance was reversed, with a large preponderance of really touching moments overshadowing just a few unsuccessful ones.

I should explain that my discomfort in the first half was caused largely by Adès’s word-setting, but the words provided by librettist Meredith Oakes for him to set was also a part of the problem. Ms. Oakes has done a reasonably competent job in compressing the play into a text of suitable length for operatic treatment, but in the process she has seemingly felt an incomprehensible need to turn Shakespeare’s inspired poetry into something often depressingly banal. Yes, I know word-music can be a problem in itself for musical setting. But still, a Tempest shorn of such poetic flights as

I’ll break my staff,

Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,

And deeper than did ever plummet sound

I’ll drown my book


the baseless fabric of this vision,

The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,

The solemn temples, the great globe itself,

Ye all which it inherit, shall dissolve

And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,

Leave not a rack behind

seems to me an impoverished Tempest.

Librettist and composer, moreover, have conspired to reduce the central role of Prospero from the status of a somewhat visionary philosopher to that of a mere grouch. The resultant reshaping may well leave the viewer/listener with the impression, at the work’s close, that The Tempest is more essentially about Caliban than about Prospero.

As for what Adès has done with Ms. Oakes’s words, the first half of his work is full of seemingly arbitrary interrelations between long and short notes, and of distracting gaps between words, such as subjects and verbs, that surely belong together. I am aware that it behooves a critic to be cautious in leveling against Adès a criticism that was often aimed at Britten early in his career but has now largely been set aside, so I should perhaps leave that aspect of the matter as an open question.

His writing for Ariel, however, seems to me more inescapably troubling. Not unfairly, Ms Eskenazi characterized this character’s vocal part as “a series of yelps.” It may be argued that it is not necessary for a voice part to be incomprehensible in every word—but, given the relation that exists between certain pitches and the vowel sounds a singer can make, I think it a mistake to write it in such a way that the listener cannot conceive of any actual words lying behind the stratospheric leaps that are tossed at him.

A phenomenally gifted and attractive performer, Simon Keenlyside somehow managed to make something like a silk purse out of the sow’s ear that constituted Prospero’s role. Most of the rest of the cast also did well. As Ariel, the lissome Audrey Luna sang as brilliantly as her part allowed. William Burden was affecting as the King of Naples. Isabel Leonard and Alek Shrader, profiting from the relatively smooth lines Adès gave them, made a sympathetic pair of young lovers—a counterpart to Nanetta and Fenton in Falstaff. Not having seen or heard the work’s premiere production, I cannot compare the Met’s Caliban to Covent Garden’s. I can readily imagine the kind of frightening intensity Ian Bostridge must have brought to the role, but Alan Oke was certainly compelling enough.

Under the composer’s direction, the orchestra and choir coped superbly with the challenges he had set them, and Robert Lepage’s imaginative production, enhanced by Jasmine Catudal’s ingenious sets and suitably atmospheric costumes by Kym Barrett, was a notable success. Or it would have been, if the version directed for television by Gary Halvorson had allowed it to be. The Met’s impressively innovative general manager Peter Gelb presumably feels that cinema viewers may become bored if they are not treated to constant changes of camera angle and frequent recourse to close-ups. But the latter, in particular, can be very damaging to the effect of opera—remember those queasy moments with the Marschallin and Octavian in bed together in Paul Czinner’s otherwise splendid Rosenkavalier film? And I feel that giving the cinema audience something more like a genuine theatrical experience (in which, after all, one does not change one’s seat from moment to moment) would furnish a far more satisfying experience.

My other complaint about the Met’s HD transmissions concerns the intermission features. These convey a wealth of often fascinating detail about how the productions have been put together. But, because the management obviously feels the need to use the intermission to advertise “coming attractions,” we are routinely given a few minutes from an upcoming opera before returning to the one actually in hand. I think this is an unpardonable vulgarism, seriously damaging to the impact of the presentation as a whole.

My desire during intermission—and I don’t think I can be unique in this—is to keep my mind focused on the musical world of the opera I have come to hear. To be bombarded with five minutes from Carmen in the middle of The Tempest is horribly distracting. Let me ask Mr. Gelb a simple question: would he regard playing chunks of other operas during intermission in the house itself as permissible? And if not in the house, why is it acceptable in the cinema? It is easy to say that the cinema experience is different—but to make it an inferior experience is to undermine the whole point of disseminating operas around the world in the first place.

Bernard Jacobson