Previewing Thomas Ades’ ‘The Tempest’

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“The Tempest” by The MET: Live in HD at the USCB Center for the Arts, on Saturday, Nov. 10, at 12:55 p.m.
By Alan Schuster
If you’ve been thinking about attending Saturday’s performance but haven’t made up your mind, maybe the following will help — one way or another. Since I’m not familiar with this comparatively new opera, I’ve combined a collection of reviews by a few critics who have already “been there, done that.”
• About the composer. Thomas Ades (pronounced AH-diss) wrote “The Tempest” for a critically acclaimed world premiere in London in 2004. Based on Shakespeare’s play, the libretto — by Meredith Oakes — has been condensed mostly into rhyming couplets sung in modern English. The production and direction is the inspiration of Robert Lepage, best known for his creative leadership of Cirque du Soleil.
Following The Met’s premiere on Oct. 23, here are some headlines that appeared in the following days: Wall Street Journal: “The Realm of Magic at its Imaginative Best”; The New York Times: “An Inspired and Personal ‘Tempest’ Makes Met Debut”; The Associated Press: “Tempest at Met: The Magic’s in the Music”; and Bloomberg News: “Shrieky ‘Tempest’ Finally Washes Up for Met Premier.”
• About Ades’s music:  The Associated Press: “A compact piece, barely two hours of music, but profoundly dense and intricate in the way it manages through shifting melody, rhythm and orchestral texture to recreate the world of the play in all its tumult and richness.” The Wall Street Journal: “One of the most compelling new works of recent years, magical in every respect. Mr. Ades has written a work with challenging roles for singers to relish … with a powerful cast and authoritative conducting by the composer himself.”  The New York Times: “One of the most inspired, audacious and personal operas to have come along in years. At every moment all sorts of complex, subtle things are going on in this music.”
• About Robert Legape: If production concepts matter, consider these quotes about Lepage. The Wall Street Journal: “The concept was consistently illuminating, witty and a match for the music from the very first moment.” The Washington Post: “Lepage is a master of ceremonies rather than a stage director. His strengths are circus-like visual effects.” The New York Times: “Lepage pulls off some striking effects. During the opening storm scene, we see Ariel hoisted and spinning on a chandelier.” The Associated Press: “There are clever touches, to be sure, as well as heavy use of Lepage’s trademark acrobats.”
• The words: Librettist Oakes takes a few hits about her poetry which has been refashioned into rhymed couplets, for the most part. The New York Times: “The constant succession of couplets can grow a little numbing … but the text gives shape to Shakespeare’s wondrously confounding plan and stays out of Mr. Ades’s way.” The Associated Press: “Although this occasionally results in doggerel, for the most part it transposes the text into simple, singable verse.” The Washington Post: “Oakes’s libretto is awful!” (Ouch!) An example of the lyrics cited by Variety: “You lie, you whine, you waste my time.”
• Praise for the singers! Beginning with soprano Audrey Luna as Ariel, who must deliver 17 high E’s in her first 19 bars of music. Variety says, “The vocal standout of the evening is Audrey Luna whose entire role is written in such a stratospheric range that one might assume only dogs can hear it. Not only does she nail every note, she presents such a quivery, highly stylized physical characterization that she seems, appropriately, not of this earth.” The Wall Street Journal: “Luna … seems to pierce the sound barrier with one of the highest and outrageously difficult arias in the opera repertoire.” The Associated Press: “The astonishing Audrey Luna not only sings all those high D’s, E’s and F’s with aplomb, she also bravely entrusts herself to various harnesses and wires.” Reviewers also praised the charismatic baritone Simon Keenlyside with compliments such as “a grave, volatile and vocally chilling Prospero”; “an opera singer who understands theatrical performance and movement”; and “a performance with somber dignity and strong vocalism.” Mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard drew praise from the The New York Times for her “lovely, vocally warm and sympathetic portrayal” of Prospero’s daughter, Miranda.
Lepage turns the island of “The Tempest” into the La Scala opera house in the 18th century with Prospero as its impresario, working his spells on the island of his banishment. Act I looks into the auditorium from the stage; in Act II, we are watching the stage from the audience; and in Act III, the action takes place backstage in the first scene and in the finale, a cross-section of the stage and the house.
There are plenty of ways to enjoy a Saturday afternoon (weather permitting) but are you willing to miss an opera you might later regret? As for myself, I’ll be going. Among many other reasons, I want to hear how they rhyme a couplet matching “daughter” with “loiter.”
Tickets are on sale at the USCB Center for the Arts Box Office at 801 Carteret St., and will be available at the door one hour before the performance. Adults $20, seniors and OLLI members $16, and students under 18, $10. All seating is assigned. For more information, call Center for the Arts director, Bonnie Hargrove, at 843-521-4145 or hargrov@uscb./edu.
With last year’s technology upgrades to the USCB Center for the Arts theater, the larger screen and improved sound will provide an even greater sense of “you are there” to this season’s live performances from the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. For more information, go to www.metopera.org/hdlive.