Opera fans take note: “The Tempest” is probably unlike anything you have ever seen or heard to date, and that’s a good reason to go rather than stay away. The New York Times called this retelling of Shakespeare’s final work without a collaborator “one of the most inspired, audacious and personal operas to have come along in years.”
The work debuted at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, in 2004 when its young composer was only 32 (!). As difficult as it is to get a new opera staged at all, much less find life in a second or third production, for a daring work as this to edge its way into the repertoire testifies to its power and grace. For those who don’t know the play, Prospero, the former duke of Milan, has been stranded for 12 years on a remote island, his throne having been usurped by his brother, Antonio. During this time he has nurtured magical prowess, through which he has enslaved the island’s original inhabitants, the spirit Ariel, who serves him, and the spiteful, monstrous Caliban, who hates him. At the beginning, Prospero’s daughter Miranda laments the storm of the title, expressing fear that many may have perished in the shipwreck she witnesses. Prospero has caused the storm, bringing into his power his enemies. However, what begins as a tale of revenge ultimately becomes a saga of redemption and forgiveness.
The production’s cast has drawn rave reviews, headed by baritone Simon Keenlyside as Prospero, the role he originated. Adès has made the spirit Ariel, here performed by coloratura soprano Audrey Luna, into one of the most vocally and physically challenging roles in any work.
Alan Oke is a standout as Caliban, as is the Miranda of mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard. The look of the show is dazzling, over the top. Librettist Meredith Oakes takes some liberities with Shakespeare’s text, purists beware. But that’s what opera has always done — expand its source material into grandeur. The result can be ridiculous or, in this case, sublime.
John Deaderick is a local theatre instructor, director, actor, and the author of Make Sweet the Minds of Men: Early Opera and Tragic Catharsis, available at Amazon.com.