As Hurricane Sandy serves to remind us, storms at sea can throw up all sorts of surprises, and the Metropolitan Opera's thrilling production of Thomas Ades' The Tempest opens with a shipwreck scene amid a turbulent sea that sets a magical tone for what is to follow.
Ade's opera opens even before Shakespeare's play begins. The curtain rises on a backdrop of the grand tiers of La Scala opera house in Milan, as though the audience were onstage looking out over the theater. A model ship is downstage and a great chandelier hangs from the flies.
During the overture, Ariel, the airy spirit who serves the exiled Prospero on his enchanted island, slithers onto the chandelier and begins to spin it like a gyroscope, creating a fury of a storm that breaks up the ship, which is carrying Prospero's old enemies. Suddenly, storm-tossed bodies are bobbing on billowing waves and all the ship's passengers are thrown ashore, now within Prospero's powers.
It is an exciting tableau that opera (and Shakespeare) lovers will be able to share on Nov. 10 when the Met matinee performance that Saturday is simulcast via satellite as the third offering of its Live in HD series in 64 countries around the world.
From that opening shipwreck scene, Robert Lepage's brilliant production - abetted by Jasmine Catudal's stunning sets, Kym Barrett's imaginative costumes, and Crystal Pite's fluid choreography - continues to dazzle until the final curtain.
Whatever reaction one may have to modern music, Ades' score is both inventive and moving. While some passages are discordant and disturbing, others are harmonious, even romantic. And with the composer in the pit conducting the splendid Met orchestra, the tempo is precisely as Ades intended it to be.
The Tempest is commonly accepted as Shakespeare's valedictory play. Its first recorded performance was at King James's court 401 years ago (almost to the day - on Nov. 1, 1611), and within weeks he retired to his hometown in Stratford-upon-Avon. The play contains some of Shakespeare's most quoted passages and the Epilogue, spoken by Prospero, is generally acknowledged as his Farewell speech.
For the opera's libretto, Meredith Oakes opted to write in rhymed couplets, a curious choice for a play that is a masterpiece of blank-verse form. But in the end, it serves the music well. The opera's plot follows the play. Prospero, the former Duke of Milan, was usurped by his brother, Antonio, with the support of the King of Naples. He was put on a ship with his daughter, Miranda, and both were presumed killed. However, he landed on an island and is now served by Ariel and Caliban, a native savage.
If revenge is the immediate motivation for Prospero, reconciliation is the ultimate theme of both the play and the opera. Once Miranda and Ferdinand, the King of Naples' son, clasp eyes on each other, they fall in love, and once Prospero is recognized he is restored to his dukedom.
The fine English baritone Simon Keenlyside is eloquent as Prospero, studious and resigned as he orchestrates what will become his final retribution. Audrey Luna, dressed in a glittering body suit and slinking around the stage like Spider-Man, is a marvel as Ariel, and her vocal dexterity is breathtaking. The first bars she sings sound nothing so much as a puppy yelping, yet her final blessing on Ferdinand and Miranda is as soft and gentle as a benediction. The tenor Alan Oke, dressed like a hairy Goth who fell in a mud puddle, is menacing as Caliban. And Isabel Leonard and Alek Shrader are winning as Miranda and Ferdinand, especially in their Act II love duet.