London saw “The Tempest” by composer Thomas Ades in 2004.
You may remember that this is the director who dreamed up the company’s outrageously expensive, hi-tech “Ring” cycle, a fiasco dominated by a gargantuan moving machine featuring lots of video and an ill-tuned Brunnhilde.
By contrast, “The Tempest” looks positively quaint. Taking our seats, we see the gilded interior of a 19th-century theater, a grand chandelier and a model ship. It’s framed by a wooden proscenium with cogwheels and ropes.
Please, not another show featuring a play within a play concept. Can’t this retro cliche be banished once and for all from the island of Manhattan?
The little stage even has mini-footlights.
Accompanied by much sturm und drang from the orchestra, an acrobat in a silvery space suit swings and spins on the rising chandelier as the ship tosses about. The heads of drowning Italian nobility bob through a billowing sheet representing the stormy sea.
These are very underwhelming visuals for a director who works with Canada’s Cirque du Soleil.
Neither was the librettist, Meredith Oakes, inspired by Shakespeare’s magnificent valedictory work, coming up with painfully clunking rhymes like “daughter” with “loiter.” It’s all the cast can do to make the story understood.
Which goes like this: On the island he’s ruled with magic for the 12 years since his Milan dukedom was usurped, Prospero and his spirited slave Ariel conjure the storm that washes his enemies ashore. Also enslaved is the beastly Caliban, who lusts after Prospero’s pubescent daughter Miranda and chafes at his imprisonment.
Poor Ariel. For the sprite, Ades composed an unrelenting series of shrieks and caws so demanding and unintelligible (think Yoko Ono in her Elephant’s Memory period) that I feared for Audrey Luna’s voice. Toward the end, this limber singer was finally allowed to sing a few human notes, and they were lovely.
Yes, there are sections of surpassing musical beauty, particularly in the trios Ades has written for Prospero (Simon Keenlyside), Caliban (Alan Oke) and Miranda (Isabel Leonard). Inspired as well is the chorus of courtiers who pop up on the island.
Too often, though, the score sounded like scale-tripping up and down, willy-nilly. (For this we waited eight years?)
Bare-chested, tattooed and heavily blinged (the costumer is Kym Barrett), Keenlyside sang with intense authority though not much emotion, even when Miranda wondered, “Why have you summoned such sorrow here?”
Leonard brought a silvery, natural charm to Miranda’s love scenes with Alek Shrader’s guileless Ferdinand, which were among the tenderest in the show.
Oke’s powerfully sung, deeply felt Caliban (decked out, in yet another cliche, as the Creature from the Black Lagoon), was matched in tonal beauty by William Burden’s gorgeously world- weary King of Naples.
Ultimately, though, the libretto and production sink the piece as much as the music.
Oakes strips the text of the poignancy that vibrates through every syllable of “The Tempest.” When Prospero finally yields his power, even his plaintive begging of Ariel to stay with him lacks emotional pull.
Working with Jasmine Catudal (sets) and Michel Beaulieu (lighting), Lepage tenders one banal image after another. Beyond the trite set-within-the-set, they include Miranda and Ferdinand walking upstage into a shimmering sunset; leaping sprites and nymphs and, of course, shadow puppetry for that multi-culti seal of approval. It’s rough magic indeed.
At the curtain call, Luna received the greatest applause, I suppose for surviving. Ades, who conducted the performance with assurance, made do with somewhat more tepid cheering.
What the Stars Mean: ***** Fantastic **** Excellent *** Good ** So-So * Poor (No stars) Avoid
(Jeremy Gerard is the chief U.S. drama critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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