Of all Shakespeare's 38 plays, it's his last one, The Tempest, that seems the most logical candidate for a mutation into opera. For one thing, the play is already riddled with music. For another, The Tempest's absurdly bombastic plot and spectacular characters seem tailor-made for the operatic stage.
British opera prodigy Thomas Ades premiered his take on the play a couple years ago in London. The debut made quite a splash, with many aficionados calling it the most significant new opera of the last decade.
Luckily for us, our own Santa Fe Opera (SFO) has a long history of supporting brave new work (see “Santa Fe Opera's 50th Anniversary Exhibit”). This season, the SFO presents the American premiere of Ades' otherworldly masterpiece.
The opera preserves the play's basic plot. Prospero, an Italian duke who doubles as a bookish wizard, is usurped by his brother and banished to a remote magical island with his infant daughter. Twelve years later, Prospero uses his sorcery to conjure up a massive storm that shipwrecks his brother and his whole entourage on the island. The wizard then spends most of the rest of the opera tormenting his enemies with the help of a freaky island spirit named Ariel.
In the end, though, Prospero's daughter falls in love with the son of the King of Naples (who also happened to be on the boat), and the wizard decides to chill out a bit and forgive everyone. So he gives up his wizardry, tosses his magic book into the surf and returns to the civilized world with his daughter.
Ades’ music is gorgeous. It changes from minute to minute much like the ocean itself, lapping gently against the audience one moment, crashing down violently the next. The score is much more melodically inclined than you might expect from a contemporary opera. The highlight is definitely the crazed vocal acrobatics required of Ariel, performed astonishingly by soprano Cyndia Sieden. Ades has her perform spectacular flights of notes at the very highest possible registers. This bit of composition seems almost sadistic, but it's an amazing thing to hear.
Thankfully, the set is as magical as the score. Characters literally get swallowed up by the yellow beach. They also rise up from the coastal water rimming the front of the stage and dramatically disappear back into it. During intermission, while schmoozing in the press room, I asked one of the publicists how they accomplished this feat of theatrical magic. She explained it to me, but I'm still not quite sure I get it. It's a trick you have to see to fully appreciate.
The costuming is strange but alluring, and more coherent than the other SFO productions I've seen this season. I wish they could've somehow hidden the wires holding up the limbs of the gigantic tree that's the centerpiece of the set, but this is a small complaint. In general, the music and visual ambiance do wonders to bring Shakespeare's most spectacular play to life.