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Sand Box

August 2, 2006, 12:00 am
By
Shakespeare takes the SFO to the edge and back.


It's the second time around for The Tempest at the Santa Fe Opera and, as the Sammy Cahn lyric puts it, it's lovelier this time. John Eaton's version of Shakespeare's last romance back in 1985 was an over-composed, over-produced mess, all microtones, electronic barks and hisses and twirling Trinculos. John Rockwell of the New ***image1***York Times hated it even more than I did, dubbing the show "dissonant sludge."

But it's different strokes in '06, now that English composer Thomas Adès is on the scene with the SFO's US premiere of his Tempest, first produced two years ago at Covent Garden. To steal a line from another of the Stratford man's dramas, in the current show "ripeness is all." There's clarity, wit, bright characterization and gobs of glorious musical invention. You even walk back to the parking lot humming the tunes.

Composers haven't been able to keep their hands off Shakespeare's play for nearly 400 years, beginning with Purcell's version of Dryden's version. The New Grove guesses that circa 60 settings are on the books. Many of these seem less than timeless, including Sir Michael Tippett's 1970 psychological pseudo-setting, The Knot Garden, with Prospero transformed into Mangus the all-seeing shrink and the Ariel/Caliban duo portrayed as a gay couple with issues.

If Adès avoids all the up-to-the-academic-minute colonial/racist spin that the play usually gets nowadays, that's due in large part to librettist Meredith Oakes' paring down of the text. She's left only a few of the touchstone lines intact, Miranda's "O brave new world!" among them, but reduced much of Shakespeare's language to brief, slant-rhyming couplets that let the music provide the poetry. It makes for brisk linguistic efficiency and speed, much like Auden and Kallman's libretto for The Rake's Progress.

Rake also comes to mind in connection with this opera's structure; it's an old-fashioned "numbers" opera like Stravinsky's. Adès has said that a prime concern in his two operas is pacing, and a frequent tempo marking in The Tempest's score is the unusual term, scorrevole, meaning running or even scurrying. This keeps the show on its feet, circumventing recitative and avoiding the stops and starts that the opera's "numbers," i.e., its arias, duets, quintets, might otherwise occasion.

Oakes' libretto adds a chorus of courtiers to the action, cuts the Masque of Juno and makes Prospero a less powerful, more fallible, if still fearsome, figure whose 12-year exile on the enchanted island has been spent plotting bitter retribution. He learns through Ariel that forgiveness is the best revenge. Oakes beefs up the villainous role of Antonio and gives us a Caliban whose rape of Miranda is as yet unattempted and who delivers the closing lines of the opera.

Though called a "deformed and savage slave" in the First Folio's list of characters, this bad-boy paradoxically gets the play's most gorgeous poetry in his speech, "Be not afear'd." Adès acknowledges this by giving him an aria, "Friends, don't fear," of almost unbearable beauty, drawn-out and Handelian, with glistening orchestral accompaniment.

Adès doesn't shy away from pretty music. The love duet for Ferdinand and Miranda concluding the second act glows with the ardor of first love. A last act quintet of healing and reconciliation, "How good they are, how bright, how grand," to a Purcellian, chaconne-like ground bass, practically stops the heart. The opera's final ***image2***bars, Ariel's wordless vocalizations, recall the ineffable conclusion to Strauss' Daphne.

The SFO gives The Tempest its grand deluxe treatment. Conductor Alan Gilbert, leading what may be his final opera here as the company's music director, provides a customarily brilliant, nuanced reading of Adès' triply complex score, bringing out instrumental agility and coloration from an orchestra that has never sounded better than it has this season.

Several artists stand out among a large and capable cast. Cyndia Sieden as Ariel, the inhuman airy spirit, delivers a role unlike any operatic human ever heard, pitched at the absolute upper extremity of the voice, with countless high e naturals and the occasional high f. As Caliban, William Ferguson makes a sweet-voiced monster. Rod Gilfrey is a solid Prospero, Wotanesque at times and most comfortable in his upper register. Patricia Risley's Miranda sings with warm darkness, complementing the fine, bright-toned confidence of Toby Spence, her princely Ferdinand.

Jonathan Kent directs a gleaming production filled with the magical surprises appropriate to a fantastic island. You'll repeatedly ask, "How did they do that?" Set and costume designer Paul Brown does a literal take on Ariel's line, "Come unto these yellow sands," creating a world on the edge of water and land.

That's what The Tempest is all about, really: the edge of things, where art and life meet, where forgiveness touches revenge, where lost things are found. Adès, the greatly gifted, whose purpose like Prospero's is to please, takes us with warmth and pleasure to this-literally-wonderful place.

 

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