Thomas Adès’s artful fantasy The Tempest has approached contemporary-classic status since its Covent Garden premiere in 2004. The US premiere in Santa Fe two years later represented a triumph for the composer, not to mention Alan Gilbert on the podium and Rod Gilfry as Prospero.
The Met caught up on Tuesday. Its version, shared with Quebec and Vienna, sounds properly quirky – briskly bombastic here, semi-sweetly lyrical there – and looks cleverly hectic.
The new production was created by Robert Lepage, the directorial divo who gave the company its clumsy zillion-dollar Ring des Nibelungen. Resourcefully seconded here by the designer Jasmine Catudal, he moved the Shakespearean action to a vaguely contemporary milieu and replaced the desert-island locale with a replica of La Scala in Milan. The result: a beguiling if fussy opera within an opera.
Fortunately, Lepage’s hocus-pocus contrivances were diminished only sporadically by extraneous hokum. It is possible that his relative fidelity to the source was influenced by the restraining, also inspiring, presence of Adès in the pit. Too bad Richard Wagner could not have wielded the baton when Lepage reduced the Ring to a silly saga about movable planks.
The sprawling Tempest ensemble performed with rare virtuosity predicated on virtue. Adès’s orchestral magnitude and Meredith Oakes’s first clever, eventually cloying rhymes probably precluded verbal clarity. Fortunately, text projections at the base of the set minimised the problem, reinforcing mime over matter.
Simon Keenlyside, the original Prospero in London, sang with sensitive force, awkward range extremes notwithstanding. He also loomed and brooded magnetically, even during long stretches when he was just a passive observer. Lithe and fearless, Audrey Luna made the impossible flights of Ariel seem like coloratura bagatelles. Alan Oke conveyed Caliban’s pathos and madness in delicate balance. Isabel Leonard focused Miranda’s sensuality irresistibly, and, when the line did not dip too low, John Del Carlo boomed sympathetically as Gonzalo.
Ultimately, everyone respected Shakespeare’s essential rhetoric. The isle, indeed, was full of noises, sounds, and sweet airs that gave delight and hurt not.