More than “Romeo and Juliet,” even more than “A Midsummer’s Night Dream,” “The Tempest” is Shakespeare’s play most tempting for music. If Wikipedia is to be believed, it has inspired at least 46 operas, to say nothing of reams of incidental music from Purcell to the present, along with symphonic poems, songs, ballet and film scores, and whatnot.
Yet surprisingly few “Tempest” projects have stirred a tempest. No “Tempest” operas, for instance, have entered the standard repertory, although Thomas Adès’ delirious 2004 effort has a good chance. Among the worthy but neglected is, for instance, John Eaton’s dazzling microtonal “Tempest” premiered at Santa Fe Opera in 1985 and then forgotten. So too Sibelius’ hour’s worth of weirdly melancholic incidental music he wrote at the end of his career, a master’s late music for another master’s last play.
What to do? Call the L.A. Phil.
Having a full day off from making operatic history, as it had Tuesday night by being the first American institution to mount the most important neglected American opera, John Cage’s “Europeras 1 & 2” at the Sony Studios, the irrepressible Los Angeles Philharmonic set out Thursday night at Walt Disney Concert Hall to make theatrical history with the U.S. premiere of Sibelius’ complete “Tempest” score.
The 36 numbers of incidental music were presented more or less in the manner intended. Conducted by the orchestra’s principal guest conductor, Susanna Mälkki, they accompanied a production of Shakespeare’s play the Los Angeles Philharmonic commissioned from the Old Globe in San Diego. That included sets, costumes, ballet and video. Vocal soloists and the Los Angeles Master Chorale were also employed. It had to have cost a bundle.
Was that enough? No. To add even greater context, sound artist Chris Kallmyer before the concert stood on a ladder on the street in front of the hall and poured water from a teapot into a bucket. Part of the L.A. Phil’s Fluxus festival, celebrating the anarchic art movement, his performance of George Brecht’s 1962 “Drip Piece” not only served to add a proper tempest-in-a-teapot watery atmosphere for Shakespeare’s shipwreck play but also set the tone for the experimental and unexpected as the best “Tempest” music has done.
Maybe this is a good place to point out that the first electronic music film soundtrack was by Bebe and Louis Barron for the 1956 “Tempest”-inspired sci-fi masterpiece, “Forbidden Planet.” Not only was that score influenced by John Cage, but Brecht had been a student of Cage. It all ties in.
Except it doesn’t. Rather than trust the strangeness of Sibelius and a capacity of experimentalism unique to the L.A. Phil, director Barry Edelstein oversaw a production that overwhelmed an unconventional composer, orchestra, concert hall and play in theatrical conventionality.
The musicians and conductor were sent to the back of the bus, shoved against the rear wall of the stage. The front half of the stage contained a set dominated by a curved bridge made of lumber, pivoted on one end by a ladder (missing the opportunity, however, to in any way relate this to “Drip Piece”). Otherwise, there were various wooden props, an umbrella and the like, to nervously mess with when lacking other options for distracting from the score.
Working with Mälkki, Edelstein somewhat refashioned Sibelius’ score, wanting to give new context to the composer’s curious dramatic choices so that they would fit with his own concept of the play, which was necessarily trimmed to fit into a concert format.
Of course, what makes Sibelius’ score so interesting is his many unexpected choices. He wrote for the specific demands of a 1926 Finnish-language production in Helsinki and, being Finnish, offers an unusually gloomy slant on the drama. He also wanted many peculiar effects like putting a harp and harmonium above the stage. Most numbers are very short. The music is fleeting and details extremely subtle.
What little musical atmosphere, let alone immediacy, remained possible with the orchestra tucked away was further hindered by Jonathan Burke’s overbearing Broadway-style sound design. When actors spoke over the music, they were given so much reverberation that they not only drowned out Sibelius but became, themselves, mostly unintelligible. Lior Ashkenazi’s prosaic Prospero fared the worst, his Israeli accent adding a further deterrent to comprehension.
Judith Dolan’s costumes were period pieces with the requisite contemporary attitude. Jeff Sugg’s video design on a huge screen offered shadows, floating translations for Sibelius’ Finnish language songs, and flower prints. Patrick McCollum’s choreography was flashy.
Mainly, though, everyone and everything other than the musicians fought with Sibelius, whose late-period moody refinement provided little help for the bright lights of Broadway.
There were, however, a few bright spots, beginning with the five vocal soloists who also stood in the back (Elizabeth DeShong, Ying Fang, Timothy Mix, Jarrett Ott and Joshua Wheeker). In the play’s cast, a girlish Miranda (Audrey Corsa) and voluble Ferdinand (Grantham Coleman) made for winning lovers. Ariel (Beth Malone) entrancingly flew on the arms of dancers yet seemed an otherwise earthbound sprite. Caliban (Tom McGowan) came across as a lovable goon. Triculo (Kevin Cahoon) and Stephano (Peter MacNicol) laid the slapstick on thick.
As for magic, that is where the music is supposed to come in. In “Europeras 1 & 2” I had wondered whether the orchestra was maybe too prominent on stage. I now have second thoughts. That certainly, as this “Tempest” demonstrated, beats the alternative.
Sibelius’ score rethinks “The Tempest.” It ends in subdued epilogue. Moving music around, Edelstein found something more feel-good from elsewhere in the score to speed our step to our cars afterward. He didn’t need to try so hard. Many in the audience were already long gone.
Los Angeles Philharmonic, 'The Tempest'
Where: Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave.
When: 8 p.m. Friday and 2 p.m. Saturday