Sunday, November 11, 2012

Night At The Opera

Over my long years in The Show Business, I was involved with a couple of opera companies (Western Opera Theatre in San Francisco and Opera Theatre of St. Louis) and through them I became somewhat familiar with the Santa Fe Opera. It was actually the trip between San Francisco and St. Louis that served as my introduction to New Mexico, so in at least one respect, we're here because of the opera. (Getting here was quite an operatic production in the end, too, wasn't it? Well, that's a story yet to be told in full; we're still recovering.)

I'm not by any means an opera fanatic nor for the most part do I much care for operas -- at least not in the Grand tradition. I became fond of opera theater -- partly because of the people, they were wonderful -- but not fond enough to stay for very long in that realm.

My association with Santa Fe Opera has been very limited: a few visits to the facilities (the setting is stunning); some friends and colleagues who were once part of the company but are no longer; and attending a few of the season-opening parties back in the 1980's. There honestly wasn't much that attracted me to the Santa Fe Opera scene and I've had very little contact with it since; there is so much more in Santa Fe and New Mexico that I am more attracted to.

But last night I went to the Lensic Theatre in Santa Fe to attend an HD simulcast of the Met's "The Tempest." Readers may recall my praise of the Met's HD version of "Carmen" that was produced a couple of years ago. I decided to go because I had to be in Santa Fe for other reasons and I would have a few hours to kill in the evening -- and because I had a long and somewhat stormy relationship with Shakespeare's "The Tempest" dating back to my earliest days a theater producer and director. Since that was also around the same time I was involved with opera theater and about the time I first came to New Mexico, there was something of a tie-in with the presentation on screen last night. At least so I thought. And I think I was right.

This was (I believe they said) the Met's premiere of Thomas Adès "The Tempest." It's adapted from Shakespeare, and it's fairly true to Shakespeare, too, though the ending is a bit different (libretto by Meredith Oakes.) This production was set at La Scala in the 19th century (settings very cleverly designed by Jasmine Catudal.)  The setting didn't always serve the production as well as it might have, but it worked surprisingly well just the same.

The music was the challenge. Much more so than anything else. Adès is touted as "the New Benjamin Britten" and I thought, OMG this is going to be awful. I really had dread of what would be presented musically, and at first my expectations seemed to be met. Those poor singers! Jeebus on toast! It wasn't just that it was a struggle for them to do it at all, it was that the audience was pretty much being left out of the equation, as if it were all a self-indulgent exercise for the composer (who was also conducting).

But then something clicked, and I was surprisingly drawn into it. I think what happened was that I "got" the production's premise (which was simple enough but not entirely clear at the beginning) and the challenge of the music on my eardrums (and the alienation that produced) dissipated. There is nothing in it that you can hum to be sure (no earworms here), and yet it... fit. This is "The Tempest" after all. I don't think something melodically "beautiful" would be appropriate. What Ades came up with may not be definitive but it was ultimately appropriate.

I want to say I actually liked it, but I'm not sure I'm quite at that point. I still have visions of my own for "The Tempest" and one day perhaps... The truth is, much of what I had in mind all those years ago has been realized in one form or another in various adaptations and productions of "The Tempest" I've seen. This one carries it even further, and I appreciated that. But none quite put it all together, and that's where I feel this production was somewhat shy of the mark though it was certainly an outstanding effort.

The production ideas were good, but much of the staging by Robert Lepage was almost pedestrian. Some of it was stunning, though, and when it worked, it was really good. The way Ariel (Audrey Luna) was all over the place, for example -- often carried in the arms or on the shoulders of black-clad "stage hands" -- was really quite effective. I liked the way the image of La Scala was used and transformed throughout the production and how it became a metaphor for the play/opera itself.

But moving the cast and chorus around might have been handled with somewhat more surety and less plodding and/or stasis if the bulk of them hadn't been hampered by Opera Costumes of 1842. Transformations are an integral part of the story, but it seemed that very little use of the idea of "transformation" was made in the production -- except as the setting was transformed. I think much more could have been done. Of course what to do with the chorus is always one of those conundrums in opera, and in this case, the director just decided to bring them on, let them stand there and sing for a bit and then take them off. Repeatedly.

The Miranda (Isabel Leonard) and Ferdinand (Alek Shrader) were performed by a very attractive young couple, both with wonderful voices, but both of whom appeared to be gobsmacked by what they were expected to sing. They did it well, but it was clearly a challenge for them. Their idealized love seemed quite genuine, surprisingly enough under the circumstances.

The Prospero (Simon Keenlyside) was another matter altogether. He sang the role superbly, but strangely his character was not as central to the production -- either the staging or musically -- as I would have thought. He was actually an ideal Prospero to my mind, but he often seemed to have nothing to do -- though he might be onstage.

Unlike the Prospero, who seemed almost like a prop at times, the Caliban (Alan Oke) was the essential and in the end the central character of the opera. This was conceptually something I have gone back and forth over many times in thinking about and imagining "The Tempest" in production. At its root, it's a story of theft and abuse and revenge and redemption through idealized love. One can see Caliban as the "ugly" aspect of all of that (but there is much, much more in his character and condition) leaving him to his bitter fate at the end, or one can see him as a -- or even the -- key part of the redemption. In the Met production, the Caliban was both central and key, but unlike the others his "transformation" was left in doubt. I really liked his final scene, but I was not entirely satisfied with the uncertainty (!) of it. Maybe it's just the times.

Toward the end, I swear the man sitting behind me broke down in tears. I certainly didn't feel that moved by it, but I can understand if someone would be. The story is one that can bring you to that point under the right circumstances, and it was my impression that everyone involved in the production was aiming for an emotional release, a catharsis. A few tears toward the end are fully appropriate.

Unlike most of the other events I've attended in Santa Fe and New Mexico, I didn't wind up chatting idly with other attendees; in fact, as soon as it was over, I hustled back to my other destination in Santa Fe and thence home through a very light snowfall. In fact, there's about an inch of snow on the ground right now, really pretty in the morning sun. Some of our East Coast friends would probably rather not hear about snow right now... or tempests for that matter...

I'll be thinking about this production -- and the very concepts underlying it and Shakespeare's play -- for some time to come, however. I had more than a few options for time-killing in Santa Fe last night. Glad I chose this one.

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