Shakespeare’s song-filled final play, “The Tempest,” is most magical and musical. And his most musicked. More than 50 “Tempest” operas are said to have been written, and many more “Tempest"-inspired, to say nothing of incidental music for the play (Purcell’s and Sibelius’ are of special note) or “Tempest” film scores (Michael Nyman’s for Peter Greenaway’s “Prospero’s Books” being especially notable).
Two “Tempest” operas came our way this week. The Metropolitan Opera is staging Thomas Adès’ “The Tempest,” and the HD broadcast in cinemas was Saturday (with an encore showing slated for Nov. 28). On Wednesday night, USC gave the West Coast premiere of Lee Hoiby’s “The Tempest,” which will be repeated Friday and Sunday.
It is obviously unfair to line-up a grand-scaled Met production by Robert Lepage with a stellar cast and the composer conducting alongside a student performance, however impressive. But what proved most interesting about the juxtaposition was the opportunity to note just how well Adès’ “Tempest” from 2004 avoided many of the pitfalls that had hobbled Hoiby two decades earlier.
Hoiby, who died last year at 85, was a curious figure in American music. As a student, he played in the ensemble of Harry Partch, the West Coast maverick who made his own elaborate instruments, created his own elaborate musical scales and, for spell, became a hobo. In the late ‘40s, Hoiby studied at Mills College in Oakland with the venturesome French composer Darius Milhaud, who was inspiration to many budding avant-gardists.
Hoiby, however, headed East and came under the spell of Gian Carlo Menotti’s neo-Romantic operas and wrote several like them, Hoiby’s biggest success being a schlocky “Summer and Smoke.” “The Tempest” dates from 1985, and had two revisions that shortened it by around 15%. Even so, the performance Wednesday kept us in USC’s Bing Theatre for 3 hours and 15 minutes.
Hoiby’s “Tempest” does not reimagine Shakespeare into something new for a new medium. The libretto by Mark Shulgasser retains as much of the playwright’s language as he could reasonably fit in and as much of the plot. The music mostly plods without personality but every so often, Hoiby ladens some schmaltz machine and suddenly the work explodes with music to which neither Broadway nor Hollywood would likely object. I didn’t either. It got me through a long evening.
Perhaps what is most disappointing about Hoiby’s “Tempest” is that his Prospero (Austin Thompson) is a pedestrian magus. Ariel, the sprite, is as the “Tempest” norm, is a flighty coloratura, and USC found an agile soprano, Jen Lee, who proved a delight.
Caliban (Blake Howard) is here a sympathetic monster who gets a sentimental aria. (A far better “Tempest” opera also from 1985, by John Eaton, makes Caliban a blues singer.) The lovers Ferdinand (David Castillo) and Miranda (Diana Newman) begin their last act duet blandly but erupt, at the end, into rapturous love music, full of cliché, but welcome nonetheless.
Ken Cazan’s production relies on considerable camp, and that is neither ineffective nor inappropriate. Brent McMunn conducted an orchestra placed behind the set and sounding unfortunately rather far away. Unfortunately, because some of the opera’s most affecting moments were found in the instrumental atmosphere (Hoiby remembered a little something from Partch and Milhaud). But a talented and well-prepared large cast provided many pleasures.
I wasn’t fully won over by Adès’ “Tempest” at its 2004 Covent Garden premiere in London. I am now. Adès, like Hoiby, tries to get in much of Shakespeare. Meredith Oakes’ libretto is new rhyme.
Everyone falls for Adès’ Ariel, her music seemingly made for a coloratura on laughing gas, and the Met’s Audrey Luna is a sensation. There is wonder mystery in his Caliban, which Saturday was very well sung by Alan Oke. But the heart of the opera is Prospero’s profound leave taking, which is really Shakespeare’s profound leave taking of the stage. To this, baritone Simon Keenlyside brought a Wagnerian pathos worth tearing up for.
Adès and Oakes remain on the mainstream, conventional side with their “The Tempest.” Others have made it more contemporary, as did composer Luciano Berio and librettist Italo Calvino in their ingenious “Un Re in Ascolto” in 1984 or as does Julie Taymor in her undervalued recent film of the “Tempest.” But Adès has made an opera — magical and musical — that gets under the surface of Shakespeare. And it is clearly catching on.
Where: Bing Theatre, USC
When: 8 p.m. Friday and 2 p.m. Sunday
Information: (213) 740-6451 or https://www.usc.edu/schools/music/
Met Live in HD info: https://www.metoperafamily.org/metopera/liveinhd/live-in-hd-schedule.aspx