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'Tempest' at Met: The magic's in the music

Associated Press Modified: October 24, 2012 at 11:16 am •  Published: October 24, 2012

NEW YORK (AP) — O brave new opera that has such music in it!

British composer Thomas Ades has written a magical score for "The Tempest," his setting of Shakespeare's tale of revenge and reconciliation, as resourcefully adapted by librettist Meredith Oakes.

And it sounded glorious Tuesday night when the Metropolitan Opera presented it for the first time with a strong cast and the composer himself conducting.

Ades (pronounced AH-diss) wrote the work on commission for the Royal Opera House in London, which premiered it to acclaim in 2004. It's a compact piece, barely two hours of music, but profoundly dense and intricate in the way it manages through shifting melody, rhythm and orchestral texture to recreate the world of the play in all its tumult and richness.

The score, by turns dissonant and lyrical, frenzied and calm, is filled with memorable passages of striking originality. Among them: the turbulent opening storm scene, when the exiled magician Prospero shipwrecks his enemies; a haunting aria in which the half-savage Caliban describes the sounds of the island to which he is rightful heir; a duet tinged with wonder for Prospero's daughter Miranda and her newfound love Ferdinand; a soaring, lyrical quintet for five of the principals in the final scene. And Ades has made the role of the spirit Ariel a tour de force for coloratura soprano, giving her a vocal line that hovers much of the time well above high C.

Oakes, an Australian playwright and poet, has trimmed the original and refocused some of the interplay among characters (in Shakespeare, Prospero intends Miranda to fall in love with Ferdinand; here it happens despite his wishes). She has stripped the iambic pentameter down to shorter couplets, many of them rhyming. Though this occasionally results in doggerel (Caliban: "You scorn me and you strike me, you say you do not like me"), for the most part it transposes the text into simple, singable verse.

With music and lyrics that do so well by Shakespeare, it's too bad the production by Robert Lepage isn't more faithful to the spirit of the original. Instead, the Canadian director — fresh from his controversial "Ring" cycle with its 24 metal planks — has imposed an elaborate and often extraneous concept on the proceedings.

He turns Prospero into a 19th-century nobleman, banished from his hometown of Milan, who recreates his beloved La Scala opera house on his island refuge. Each of the three acts presents a different view of the house — the auditorium, the stage, the backstage — and all the action takes place in these spaces, with Prospero as unseen stage manager, sort of an Italian version of the Phantom of the Opera.

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