Spence, Toby


TempestThomas Adès - The Tempest

Metropolitan Opera, New York, 2012 | Thomas Adès, Robert Lepage, Simon Keenlyside, Audrey Luna, Alan Oke, Isabel Leonard, Alek Shrader, Toby Spence, William Burden, Kevin Burdette, Iestyn Davies, Christopher Feigum, John Del Carlo | The Met Live in HD, 10th November 2012

Following the furore surrounding his controversial high-tech production of Wagner’s Ring cycle for the Metropolitan Opera across their past two seasons, Robert Lepage returns somewhat to his roots as a traditional theatre director for a work that may not be equal in scale and stature to Wagner’s epic work, but is ambitious and challenging nonetheless, to say nothing of a bit of a commercial gamble. Lepage, as was made clear repeatedly in interviews and in programme notes, has directed Shakespeare’s play ‘The Tempest‘ eight times in his career, so you would expect him to know what works and what doesn’t (something that might not have been so clear in his handling of the Ring). An opera based on ‘The Tempest‘ is however a different prospect altogether, particularly one that has been necessarily condensed and ‘translated into English’, and requires a very different approach to staging. Fortunately, in this production for the Metropolitan Opera, ambitiously broadcast live in HD to cinema theatres across the world, Lepage was considerate of the different requirements that opera and Shakespearean theatre demand. It’s fortunate also that composer Thomas Adès also has a very clear view of the work and brings it across marvellously and musically in The Tempest.

Shakespeare usually has to be considerably reworked when adapted to an opera, meaning that it is necessarily condensed, streamlined and stripped largely of its poetry. Having a kind of musical element of its own, ‘The Tempest‘ however would appear to be a work that is more open to musical adaptation than most other Shakespeare works. Considering its scope and range - taking in comedy, family drama and political intrigue - but most notably having a supernatural and musical element that takes in the spirits of the spheres through Ariel and the baseness of the earthy Caliban, the whole drama taking place on a magical island of “noises sounds and sweet airs” - The Tempest would appear to be both a challenge and a gift for a capable musician. Adès manages to integrate all the rich elements of Shakespeare’s work wonderfully, not just accompanying the various strands of comedy, drama and romance that are rather compressed in the dramatic playing, but making up for the lack of poetry in the libretto by deepening the sentiments through the musical dimension. It’s not always the most melodic of arrangements, but it’s wholly appropriate to the context of the scenes, never discordant and often quite beautiful in its symphonic sweep.

The most difficult element - from the point of view of composition, from the nature of the singing challenges and from the assault on the ears of the listener - is undoubtedly in the tricky characterisation of Ariel. It’s necessary that Ariel appear to be a spirit creature from another, higher dimension, but held under the power of Prospero the pain of his captivity and his desire to escape from earthly bonds should also be an element in the character’s make-up. Adès expresses this in the highest extremes of the soprano range, which is by no means easy on the ear or even entirely intelligible, but it does have an otherworldly quality. That however is just the most extreme example. Elsewhere Adès shows himself capable of strong individual characterisation in each of the roles and personalities, in the comedy of Stefano and Trinculo, in the romance of Miranda and Ferdinand, in the dark scheming of Antonio and Sebastian, and in the nobility of the King of Naples in his grief for Ferdinand whom he believes dead. What is marvellous about Adès’ writing for The Tempest is that he not only fully characterises and enriches expression of each individual character - without having recourse to themes or leitmotifs - but that he makes them coexist and work together. In drama that’s difficult enough, but to bring those musical elements together into a coherent piece is much more challenging. That’s however where opera traditionally excels and Adès shows wonderful facility for this necessary ability.

And then, of course, there’s Prospero, with his thoughts of revenge for having being usurped from the throne of Milan by his brother, his enslavement of Ariel and Caliban, his exercise of power over the island and his daughter Miranda, and the relinquishing of all those powers and claims by the end of the work. Not only must the development of Prospero’s character arc encompass all these elements, but his personality must be seen (and heard) to exert an influence over everything that happens - his watchful eye monitoring the activity of the crew that his storm has shipwrecked on the island. If the final realisation and capitulation of his powers still seems a little hurried and arrived at without too much deliberation or conflict, Adès nonetheless manages to characterise this as successfully as it could possibly be. Much inevitably depends on the quality of the singer, and Simon Keenlyside (reprising a role that he helped create in the original 2004 Covent Garden production of the work) is a commanding presence that brings Prospero to life and brings a necessary degree of humanity to the part. It’s an extremely challenging role - particularly in the singing - and Keenlyside did show a little strain in places, but nothing that couldn’t be seen as characterisation of Prospero’s own personal conflicts and dilemmas.

The singing and characterisation was marvellous almost right across the board here, and it went some considerable way towards making a difficult work much more accessible and enjoyable. Audrey Luna was simply astonishing as Ariel, as lithe and agile in her movements as in her voice (Lepage effectively keeping Ariel almost exclusively floating up and above or outside the drama as a mischievous but otherworldly sprite), and the casting of Isabel Leonard and Alek Shrader as the beautiful couple of Miranda and Ferdinand - the great hope for the future - could hardly be more perfect. Leonard’s rich and luxurious mezzo-soprano was wonderfully expressive with clear diction and real strength of character, blending wonderfully with Shrader’s handsome tenor voice. Caliban might have been a little marginalised as a character here, never really working his way into the main drama, but Alan Oke made something wonderful of the role in his singing and performance, interacting well with the character pieces of Stefano and Trinculo. Countertenor Iestyn Davies - who made a strong impression in last season’s Rodelinda at the Met - again demonstrated a voice of incredible beauty and clarity. Adès’ writing is so strong that it provides notable roles also for Toby Spence (the original Ferdinand) as Antonio and particularly William Burden who gave wonderful expression to the grief-stricken sentiments of Naples. Only bass-baritone John Del Carlo seemed to struggle with the difficult range of the vocal writing of Gonzalo, but nonetheless sang his Act III solo piece (not quite an aria) very well.

If the singing went some way towards making a potentially difficult work more accessible, Robert Lepage’s stage direction and Jasmine Catudal’s clever set designs played their part in helping it all flow together marvellously. The importance of the direction shouldn’t be underestimated, as it any one element in the machinery of an opera can impact on all the others, and - working perfectly in accord with the music as opposed to a preconceived idea of Shakespearean ought to look like - Lepage’s contribution was a perfect fit for the work. The setting of the first act within a reproduction of the La Scala theatre certainly ties in with the notion of music, theatre, opera and even Prospero’s claim to be Duke of Milan, but more than being notional, it provided a conceptual approach to the theatricality of the staging, with figures slipping beneath the platform of the stage, and dropping into the prompter’s box. The Native Indian tattoos and markings on Prospero beneath his military greatcoat, with feathers woven into his hair, and the shaman-like appearance of the disinherited Caliban hinted at some of the underlying themes in the work relating to colonisation and exploitation of native populations, without needing to take this any further and over-complicate the progression of the drama.

The colour and spectacle of the production was well-served then by the simple magic of theatre props and machinery, the planks of the stage replacing the rather more high-tech planks of the unwieldy (but nonetheless impressive) Machine for Lepage’s Ring cycle - and it was a simplicity that worked alongside the music and with the themes here rather than try an impose a presence on them. As a consequence, with the composer Thomas Adès himself directing the orchestra from the pit, working to the strengths of the singing and to the movements on the stage, this felt like a truly complete opera production, one where all the elements work with and support the other to create that particular magic that comes only from this particular fusion of music and theatre - opera.

ScrewBenjamin Britten - The Turn of the Screw

Glyndebourne 2011 | Jonathan Kent, Jakub Hrůša, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Miah Persson, Susan Bickley, Toby Spence, Giselle Allen, Thomas Parfitt, Joanna Songi | Live HD Broadcast, 21st August 2011

Although Glyndebourne haven’t been associated with perhaps the most famous name in modern English opera until relatively recently – a longstanding feud between the Suffolk opera company and Britten creating a thirty-five year gap up that lasted until the 1980s – they have put on some notable productions since. Two of Britten’s most famous operas however have had to wait a considerable time before they made their first appearance on the Glyndebourne stage, but with a production of Billy Budd conducted by Mark Elder in 2010, and a 2006 production of The Turn of the Screw, Glyndebourne can certainly be seen to have made amends for those notable absences. If it’s not quite as definitive a production as their remarkable staging of Billy Budd last year, The Turn of the Screw, Jonathan Kent’s 2006 production revived here for the latest season, recorded and broadcast live in HD, is however a very different kind of opera that demands a different kind of treatment and performance.

The Turn of the Screw is similar to Billy Budd – as Mark Elder oberved – in that it deals with the theme of the loss of innocence, but, adapted from a short novel by Henry James (1898), the loss of innocence seems even more distressing when it is applied to the corruption of young children. In some respects a ghost story – one of the most famous and enigmatic of ghost stories ever written – The Turn of the Screw is also one of the first works to consider its hauntings and apparitions in psychological terms, the sightings of sinister figures seeming to be extensions of the hysterical imaginings of a sexually repressed Victorian governess. Charged with looking after two young children, Flora and Miles, by their uncle who is always away elsewhere on business, the Governess – with perhaps a bit of a crush on the man she only meets once (he’s not seen at all in the opera version) and who has forbidden her having any further contact with him unless absolutely necessary – the desires of the woman and her own repressed emotions become reflected and even enacted out on the lives of the children.

There are however many possible readings of the material which defies easy analysis and intentionally – to rather more disturbing effect – leaves plenty of room for ambiguity and personal impressions. Britten’s opera plays on this, or at least takes account of the potential that can be drawn out further through the use of equally evocative, ambiguous and often disturbing musical motifs and even nursery rhymes. The opera can be seen as a ghost story where the ghosts of Miss Jessel and Peter Quint are indeed present and interact with the children and the Governess, as a psychological reading where they are the manifestation of a heightened or disturbed mental state brought about by sexual repression (the Governess first sees Peter Quint on a tower after thinking about the children’s uncle, believing it to be him), and it is indeed also about the loss of innocence. It is not so much the suggestion of child abuse enacted upon the children by the malevolent servants – although that reading is certainly suggested – as much as the consideration that Flora and Miles will not remain innocent children for long, but will inevitably be “corrupted” by the world, by knowledge, and perhaps unwittingly even by the over solicitious behaviour of the Governess herself, conscious and feeling guilty about her own repressed adult desires.

Musically, all these thoughts and emotions are evoked magnificently in the chamber orchestration, where even the smallest of sounds, tones and emotional states have complex meanings and are often picked out by individual instruments. Jonathan Kent chooses to set the opera in the 1950s as the last period of innocence (a period and theme he would reuse in his 2010 Glyndebourne production of Don Giovanni for similar reasons), which doesn’t really add anything – although it does have additional significance as being the original period in which Britten’s opera was composed – but likewise, it doesn’t detract at all from the tone or the content of the opera. Much more importantly, Paul Brown’s set designs for the country house at Bly remain sparse and fluidly changeable, like the moods of the score and the tone of the whole piece itself. The walls surrounding the starkly lit set give an enclosed claustrophobic quality to the isolated drama being played-out, the centre of the stage dominated by a set of French windows that likewise suggest closedness, as well as showing a world outside, marked by a twisted tree branch. It’s a strong representation of the interior world in which Mrs Grose and the Governess want to keep the children protected and the external world which holds horrors that irresistibly attract them. Britten’s score likewise plays with this ambiguity, with plaintive violins relating to closed internal emotional states, while flutes and harps suggest the open air, as well as a more floating spiritual domain, but one that also has a more sinister touch.

The sets and music working in perfect accord, with concentric platforms swirling objects fluidly and hauntingly into place with perfect timing, the players of the London Philharmonic Orchestra marvellously conducted by Jakub Hrůša to draw all the necessary tension out of the score, the singing was also perfect for the occasion. Really, it would be hard to say which side of the physical/spiritual divide held the upper hand, such was the strength of expression, deluded and dangerous though it might be, of Susan Bickley’s Mrs Grose and Miah Persson’s Governess, their terror over the apparitions powerfully delivered. They were however more than matched by Toby Spence’s Peter Quint and Giselle Allen’s Miss Jessel, who both asserted a forceful and appropriately sinister physical and vocal presence. The ensemble pieces with the children Thomas Parfitt and Joanna Songi were most effective in this regard, Songi in particular an impressive young talent. Pitched perfectly on every level, form and content working in perfect accord, this was a fine performance of another impressive Britten production at Glyndebourne.

BoreadesJean-Philippe Rameau - Les Boréades

Opéra National de Paris, Palais Garnier, 2003 | Robert Carsen, Les Arts Florissants, William Christie, La La La Human Steps, Barbara Bonney, Paul Agnew, Toby Spence, Laurent Naouri, Stéphane Degout, Nicolas Rivenq, Anna-Maria Panzarella, Jaël Azzaretti | Opus Arte

It’s hard to imagine how Rameau’s last opera would have been staged 250 years ago – particularly since, written a year before the composer’s death in 1765, it was abandoned unperformed and has since disappeared into near-obscurity – but Robert Carsen’s typically brilliant direction finds an appropriate perfect balance between simplicity and modernity that allows the music, singing and the dancing to be seen in the best possible light.

The emphasis, as ever with Carsen, is on the lighting and colour to achieve the appropriate mood and atmosphere, but every other element works perfectly alongside it. The costumes are smart and elegant, a classic formal 1940s Dior look, which you might not think of as being the dress of ancient mythology, but the opera itself uses familiar figures and creates its own mythology from them, much like Rameau’s Zoroastre. The sets are minimal, but props, when they are used, are used to impressive effect, the director finding a perfect balance between the colours and the tones of the dress, never letting the stage become cluttered even when it is filled with singers, chorus and dancers.

There’s a sense of harmony in the stage arrangement then that is appropriate for the subject of the opera that is bound up in nature and the seasons. Alphisa, the Queen of the mythical land of Bactria (the same fictional kingdom used in Zoroastre), is bound by law to marry one of the sons of Boreas, the God of the North wind, but she is in love with Abaris, a man of unknown descent. It turns out of course that he is the son of Apollo and one of Boreas’ nymphs, making him of Borean descent and capable of marrying Alphisa, but there is a lot of turmoil and tempestuous exchanges before this little fact is dramatically revealed. That conflict is expressed in the seasons in the most colourfully theatrical manner with an immaculate sense of the musical, dramatic and aesthetic principles of the opera.

It’s a French Baroque opera, of course, so there are also ballet elements, and the intricate modern movements and gestures of the La La La Human Steps fit perfectly into the overall spectacle. And a wonderful spectacle is what it is intended to be. Regardless of the intricacies or the meaninglessness of the plot, with its Masonic overtones and pre-Revolutionary class conflict, Les Boréades is a supreme diversion and an entertainment, combining all the elements that make up Baroque opera and where the noble expressions of love, honour and liberty are restored and win out over the twists of fate and whims of the gods.

We are fortunate to be able to have someone like William Christie to bring this kind of opera back to the stage, who, along with Robert Carsen, has such a deep understanding and love for the Rameau and his works. The performance of Les Arts Florissantes under Christie’s direction is marvellous, attacking the rhythmic dance score with verve, but also with a degree of sensitivity for the sentiments of love expressed in the arias. The same can be said of the terrific cast – particularly in Barbara Bonney’s strong and impressive Queen Alphisa, and Paul Agnew’s gorgeously lyrical high-tenor Abaris (listen out for his heartbreaking aria ‘Je cours fléchir un dieu sévère’ in Act IV) .

Filmed in HD, if only available on Standard Definition DVD, the recording of performance still looks and sounds extremely good, the sound mixes in LPCM Stereo and Dolby Digital 5.1 (there is no DTS track here). The opera is spread over two discs but, since the five acts of the opera are played straight through without even any natural breaks between the acts, the split is unfortunate but unavoidable. There is also an hour-long documentary on the opera, which is relatively informative but over-long. A fine package.