Thomas Ades’s opera “The Tempest,” written in 2004 and presented at the Metropolitan Opera in a new production on Tuesday night, has the feeling of something substantial when you’re in it. You may not always like it, but a lot is going on. The music rages and roars, or whistles ethereally, leaping from the growl of throaty bass instruments in the nether depths of the orchestra pit to the ear-splitting twittering of the sprite Ariel (Audrey Luna), a part written in that stratospheric register beloved of several contemporary composers, that generally works better as an idea of soprano-hood than as an actual sound.
Yet when the opera ended on Tuesday, it was with a soap-bubble pop -- “vanished into air, into thin air,” to quote Shakespeare’s original Prospero. In the final act, the piece seemed to have ended quite some time before the music stopped; the opera plodded on grabbing at fragments of substance that flickered away as you looked at them. Throughout the evening, the orchestra sounded as if it was still getting the score under its belt. And Robert Lepage’s production, although it had some fine moments, rested on a cliche -- setting the action in an opera house, a trope we’ve seen dozens of times by now -- that ended up, in that final act, both undermining and trivializing the story.
There are many things to like in “The Tempest,” and while my reaction was uneven -- I hated the first act, loved the second, and was ambivalent about the third -- I’d say that on the whole it’s worth seeing. The opera is neither palpably anxious to please nor militant about driving home its artistic point of view regardless of what anybody might think, and thereby avoids two of the most common pitfalls of contemporary opera.
It is not particularly well written for the voice -- indeed, one reason I had trouble with the first act was that it shoved the two women’s voices, Ariel’s and Miranda’s (Isabel Leonard), up to the top of the register and had them pump out high notes that just don’t sound good when you have to hear too many of them. And Meredith Oakes’s libretto is awful; I see the point of taking a step away from Shakespeare and using more direct language in an adaptation, but the clunky rhyming couplets were like small strings of lead balloons.
But the score is alive to the possibilities of orchestral sound, used for dramatic effect rather than for its own sake. And whatever the problems with the vocal writing in the first act, they were overridden by the fantastic chorus that opened the second act, which grabbed and sustained interest through a much stronger, calmer, and involving musical experience — in which even Ariel’s part grew less hysterical.
Lepage is a master of ceremonies rather than a stage director. His strengths are circus-like visual effects: the tempest in the opening scene, with its billowing blue ocean and storm-tossed figures beneath a spinning chandelier, was fantastic, and some of the narrative devices, like framing flashbacks in an opera box, worked very well. (He’s not the first director to give Shakespeare the circus treatment: remember Peter Brook’s trapeze version of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream?”) His weakness is anything to do with character development. I liked his “Tempest” a lot more than his “Ring,” but it too was saddled with a concept -- Prospero as opera Intendant -- that stifled the figures. Ferdinand (Alek Shrader, a gifted young tenor finally making his Met debut five years after winning the Met auditions) and Miranda were symbols of young love more than embodiments of it; and the court of Naples had more presence than some of its courtiers, though William Burden was quite wonderful as the King of Naples, and Toby Spence appropriately odious as Prospero’s deceitful brother, Antonio.
Indeed, Lepage’s cluelessness about character was a particular shame precisely because the Met marshalled such a fine cast. I may not have loved Ades’s vocal writing, but I can see that this opera has a lot of interest for singers, and a lot of meaty roles -- Caliban, in particular, became a central and even sympathetic figure thanks to Alan Oke, who’s appeared mainly as a character tenor but seems perfectly capable of doing a lot more. Kevin Burdette and Iestyn Davies had fun with the buffa parts of Stefano and Trinculo; it’s a nice touch to make Trinculo, a clownlike outsider, a countertenor. And Keenlyside, though he sounded squeezed and tired in the first act -- again, I blame the vocal writing -- blossomed as the night went on into a vocally authoritative presence.
The final act was set in a cutaway of a theater auditorium with a bit of a proscenium stage, so that as story lines were resolved figures were brought from the “audience” onto the “set.” “The Tempest” certainly plays with illusion and reality, but Lepage’s conceit was a heavyhanded way to address that; Prospero is a more interesting “director” if he is not literally cast as one. And the theater setting meant the action was wrapped up -- we get it, we’re in a theater, the illusions are done -- before the opera was over. The significance leached out of the piece as we watched, like a reflection of one of Lepage’s nice touches: Ariel shimmying up the stage curtain like a flame and darting out of Prospero’s life even as he calls, Stay with me. It was a nice motto for the opera as a whole: one wanted a bit more out of it before it ended.