Tempests for everyone! Menacing gray clouds surround my apartment, located just outside the "C Zone" of hurricane evacuation. I'd better finish blogging while there's still wireless.
Adès's glorious opera still has me in its clutches. Before attending Saturday night's performance at the Met, I spent the afternoon rereading the Shakespeare play. This was a good idea. I had forgotten just how strange and self-referential this play is.
A shipwreck strands a pack of Italian noblemen on a magical island ruled by the wizard Prospero. The only other humans on the island are his daughter Miranda and his slave Caliban, son of the indigenous island witch. We learn in an Act 1 monologue that Prospero is really the rightful Duke of Milan and has orchestrated this entire hurricane to seize back power from his usurping brother. He also manages to marry off Miranda to the prince of Naples. The legwork gets done by a fairy named Ariel whom Prospero holds in a kind of indentured servitude. At the end, Ariel is freed, the dukedom is restored, and the island (presumably) reverts back to its natural state, lorded over by a lonely Caliban.
Compared to the usual mad dash of Shakespeare's comedies, this plotting is oddly flat. The romance seems pre-ordained and all the villains' scheming is doomed from the outset. I was amazed, rereading it, at how little actually happens. Yet never once are we bored, just as we are never bored in our dreams.
This is late Shakespeare. The Tempest is thought to be the last play he wrote as a solo author. It has pride of place in the First Folio, where it is first of all the comedies and therefore the first play in the book.
It's obvious that there's more going on than meets the eye. I think that in this play more than any other, Shakespeare lifts up the hood so we can look at the engine. It's no wonder Thomas Adès, who delights in the metatextual, chose to take it on.
This Caliban speech is famous, and I think you can read it as a summary of the whole play, of the experience of an audience member in a theater:
Be not afear'd; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight, and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears; and sometime voices,
That, if I then had wak'd after a long sleep,
Will make me sleep again: and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open, and show riches
Ready to drop upon me; that, when I wak'd,
I cried to dream again.
Adès really stretches out on this gorgeous aria. Alan Oke sounded great here - it felt like he saved up his voice for moments like this. Maybe he felt the same frisson I did, singing on the island of Manhattan on the eve of Frankenstorm. It was one of the most riveting moments of the opera.
Here's Meredith Oakes's lyrics:
Friends don't fear
The island's full of noises
Sounds and voices
It's the spirits
Sometimes they come
After I've slept
And hum me
Back to sleep
With a twangng
And a sweetness
A thousand instruments
Then I dream
I'm seeing heaven
It's as if
The clouds had opened
I see riches
Raining from them
Then I wake
And cry to dream again
Typing it, I think of the text to a great picture book, something like Where the Wild Things Are. Oakes is spare, vivid, and unpretentious. She leaves room for Adès to add the color.
Post-colonialist scholars have had a field day with the tale of savage Caliban subdued by a white wizard. Anyone who attended Brown University when I did got an earful. I remember a certain discussion section of Aimé Césaire's Une tempête that brought me to tears. Caliban is to the colonized what Shylock is to the Jews.
One of Oakes's and Adès's smart moves was to place Caliban more center stage. They have also limited Prospero's power, so that Miranda and Ferdinand fall in love against his wishes rather than in accordance with his master plan. Reigning in Prospero gives the plot more ebb and flow. It also marks the opera as a post-modern one. We don't live anymore in the age of the author/wizard.
Here's the early speech in which Caliban protests against the injustice of his slavery. He reminds Prospero that Caliban was once the host. Hospitality perverted is one of the great ancient sins. I can't read this speech without thinking of Thanksgiving turkeys and smallpox blankets:
- This island's mine, by Sycorax my mother,
Which thou takest from me. When thou camest first,
Thou strokedst me and madest much of me, wouldst give me
Water with berries in't, and teach me how
To name the bigger light, and how the less,
That burn by day and night: and then I loved thee
And show'd thee all the qualities o' the isle,
The fresh springs, brine-pits, barren place and fertile:
Cursed be I that did so! All the charms
Of Sycorax, toads, beetles, bats, light on you!
For I am all the subjects that you have,
Which first was mine own king: and here you sty me
In this hard rock, whiles you do keep from me
The rest o' the island.
Meredith Oakes renders this as:
The island's mine, by Sycorax my mother
When I first found you, you were weak
Crouched in a rock, your child in your cloak
I came to save you
I was your friend
Nor were you ever
Unkind to me then
You scorn me and you strike me
You say you do not like me
I showed you all the island
The fertile and the barren
All I had you were given
But now you have forgotten
Multisyllabic and imperfect rhymes give Oakes's lyrics an exuberant, comic feel. Rhymes like this are admired in hip hop ("I made the change from a common thief/ To up close and personal with Robin Leach.") Of course this kind of thing is going to bring scorn from the critics. Tommasini says he finds the rhymes "numbing," and Mike Silverman of the AP cites as "doggerel" the line "You scorn me and you strike me, you say you do not like me." There will always be players and player haters.
We keep going back to Shakespeare because of his polyphony. He was the master and the slave. Virginia Woolf called his mind "incandescent" because he could encompass both male and female subjectivities. Every voice rings true.
If there was one thing missing for me in the opera, it was the persuasiveness of the individual voices. The orchestra sounded like they were having a great time under Adès's sexy baton, but I couldn't always hear the singers above them. My favorite performance came from tenor William Burden as the King of Naples. His sweet, melancholy tone pushed every note through to the balcony.
I hadn't heard the music before, and as I listen to the CD now I hear new layers. In performance I couldn't stand the screeching Ariel. The role for coloratura soprano is almost sadistic in its virtuosity, and, while I admired Adès's invention and Audrey Luna's range, every time she took the stage I winced. Some of this may have been the production design, which had her looking and dancing like an extra from the Cirque du Soleil.
Alex Ross has recapped the critical panning of Lepage's Ring Cycle design here. His Tempest design has been equally controversial, placing the opera within a broken-down La Scala with Prospero as its director. My date pronounced it "brilliant and Brechtian" but I thought it felt too straight, almost didactic. Maybe it's time to stop letting Lepage near all this great music.
One exception was when Miranda and Ferdinand, united, walked off into an ocean of light. The effect was exquisite and surreal, like an old movie projected on the wall of a dance club.
Adès and Oakes boldly take the epilogue away from Prospero and give the last word to Caliban. Alone on the island, he wonders:
Who was here?
Have they disappeared?
Were there others?
Were we brothers?
Did we feast?
And give gifts?
Were there fires
They were human seeming
I was dreaming
In the gleam of the sand
In the hiss of the spray
In the deep of the bay
In the gulf in the swell
The entire third act was great,but this was the best tune of them all, echoed eerily by an offstage Ariel, in the only singing she did all night that I liked. I got tears in my eyes. The moment was so beautiful that it made me realize what I had been missing throughout the rest of the opera.
Melody! A good, hummable tune like the kind you get with Mozart or Puccini. This was tricky of Adès, giving me what I wanted just as the dream ended. The bittersweet finish keeps going on and on.
Shakespeare's original epilogue is one of the all-time great endings, right up there with Life of Pi and The Magic Mountain in terms of epilogues that make you want to reread the entire work. Prospero, having renounced his magic, steps out from the proscenium to beg for our applause and for continued life in our collective hearts:
Now my charms are all o'erthrown,
And what strength I have's mine own,
Which is most faint: now, 'tis true,
I must be here confined by you,
Or sent to Naples. Let me not,
Since I have my dukedom got,
And pardone'd the deceiver, dwell
In this bare island by your spell;
But release me from my bands
With the help of your good hands:
Gentle breath of yours my sails
Must fill or else my project fails,
Which was to please. Now I want
Spirits to enforce, Art to enchant;
And my ending is despair,
Unless I be relieved by prayer,
Which pierces so, that it assaults
Mercy itself, and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardon'd be,
Let your indulgence set me free.
I was telling my friend Kitty about this speech yesterday when she stopped by for a pre-hurricane cocktail. She reminded me of another great epilogue, from the stage play of Peter Pan. Clap if you believe!