Good Star Cast Keep “Tempest” Blowing Along

Good Star Cast Keep “Tempest” Blowing Along

A-SH-Tempest (Globe)I am of two minds with the Shakespeare Globe productions being released on the Kultur DVD label. Some are quite good, one was absolutely horrible, but all have enough good aspects to make them worth watching. One of the latest, a 2013 “The Tempest,” has some excellent points to recommend it.

Roger Allam, having done a superb Falstaff in the two “Henry IV” productions, is here an excellent Prospero. He shows the right balance of anger, humor, remorse, and finally forgiveness, making him dangerous and sympathetic at the same time. Jessie Buckley’s Miranda is costumed as a somewhat wild thing, which makes sense, and beautifully shows her wonder at the creatures who appear in her “brave new world.”

While the Ariel of Colin Morgan seems too solid—the role is often played by a small actress or a dancer—the Caliban of James Garnon is the best I have seen. Without any animal-like makeup or costuming, he looks like a dirty denizen of some bog and yet the actor has a face and delivery that elicits sympathy. An original and impressive interpretation of a problematic character.

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Miranda and Ferdinand

Joshua James does not look like a romantic Ferdinand (well, Miranda does say that he is only the third man she has ever seen!) and the role is played for laughs. As usual at the Globe, the comic scenes are overdone; although the script does call for a lot of farcical doings between the clownish Stephano (Sam Cox) and Trinculo (Trevor Fox) and then between them and Caliban.

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Clowns meet monster

The rest of the cast are good, although some of their lines are rushed and points are lost. Having decided to use a full script, the director failed an important test. In one scene, there is a series of jokes made about the “widow Dido,” none of which are comprehensible as spoken. Since we know that “widow Dido” was pronounced Wid-doh Did-doh in Shakespeare’s time, that alone would have gotten the laughs sorely needed in that sequence.

And as in every production of this play I have seen, the words of the spirits of Iris, Ceres, and Juno were rattled off with no attention to meaning. Worse, one of the actresses had a voice like a rusty hinge that detracted further from both the beauty of the verse and the meaning of the words. Directors, take heed!

But all in all, the Goods outweigh the Bads in this production, and I can recommend it to those interested in Shakespeare and especially to those local theatre groups who can learn much from these Kultur discs.

Shakespeare’s Texts as Opera Libretti

sir johnShakespeare’s Texts as Opera Libretti 

One wishes to set a Shakespeare play to music as an opera in English. What are the choices? In fact, what are the chances of success? Of course, compelling music is most critical in such a translation. Equally important is an intelligent treatment of the original text. So again, what are the choices?

Obviously, one must cut. No one would dream of keeping every line of a Shakespeare play and trying to set the whole to music for the simplest of reasons: it takes longer to sing a line than to speak it.

That said, does one keep unaltered what is left? For “Salome,” Richard Strauss took about three-fourths of Oscar Wilde’s text (in German) and set what was left as is. Strauss had the talent to carry it off. Yes, there are moments when things do drag just a little; but for the most part, he managed to set an awful lot of prose—no mean feat—to powerful music.

41SW45ZTYEL._AA160_When Gustav Holst composed “At the Boar’s Head,” he chose the prose scene in which Hal and Falstaff alternate playing King and Prince. (That is, “Henry IV, Part 1,” Act II, scene iv.)  Where he sticks to the original text, the vocal line is not very interesting musically. After all, setting prose to music is quite a challenge and this composer did not quite meet it. However, in the sections of this short work which are not set to prose, such as Hal’s singing Sonnet No. XIX, the score is melodic and attractive.

Ralph Vaughan Williams did the same with his “Sir John in Love.” Passages taken straight from the prose text of “The Merry Wives of Windsor” are mingled with English folk songs that make the score a delight. Why this wonderful piece is not part of the regular repertory is beyond me.

51f7eQa2z7L._AA160_The failure of Samuel Barber’s “Antony and Cleopatra,” commissioned to celebrate the opening of the new Metropolitan Opera House in Lincoln Center, was (I feel) due to his libretto, which adhered faithfully to an abridged version of the original text. Even Strauss could not sustain enough musical interest in his post-“Elektra” operas because of the libretti; and Barber likewise failed to create any better than a declamatory vocal line for his singers.

download (2)Benjamin Britten’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” has wonderful things happening in the orchestra but little more than that same declamatory vocal line that proves so boring after a short while. Only when he lets his lovers sing together in a short chorale do things perk up a bit. (I once was showing a video scene from this work to a Continuing Education class, and one of them asked me to skip to the next work. I quite agreed with her.)

 

 

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What inspired me to discuss this topic of taking Shakespeare on in musical terms was the release of two operas based on “The Tempest.” The one with a score by Thomas Ades (on an EMI Classics CD set) has librettist Meredith Oakes wisely making cuts and tightening up what was left by transforming them into shorter lines, some of which rhyme. To pick a random example: “I have been captive/With you twelve years/I must be active/In higher spheres…” and so on.

I find that the orchestra has much that is interesting to say while the singers are given all sorts of vocal pyrotechnics to add variety. What happens is that the words, although sung in English, are barely understandable without the aid of the printed text. Still, after a while, one does hope for a melody of some sort.

61A4GQnx3ML._AA160_Lee Hoiby’s “The Tempest” has a libretto by Mark Shulgasser, in which the parts of the original he retained are word for word. I need hardly say that the declamatory vocalization is much in evidence. (This version is available on Troy CDs.) Every time I think Hoiby is about to approach a melody—as in Ariel’s songs—he disappoints.

For some reason, contemporary composers do not feel that the singers need be given any melodic lines. Shall I be cynical and guess they simply cannot do so, like the artist who paints abstractions because he cannot paint a realistic apple? Or shall I give them the benefit of a doubt and agree that they might feel melody would destroy the drama? Why, in that case, compose opera at all?

I would rather hear Hoiby than Ades, but give me Verdi’s “Otello” for the perfect blend of melodic vocal lines, powerful orchestration that is not for one moment boring, and all the drama even Shakespeare could have desired.

Opera: Caution! Open with Care

 

Opera: Caution! Open with Care

A very interesting point can be made abouPinocchiot how one is introduced to an opera. If an initiate has heard recordings of only (say) “Il Trovatore,” he might look at opera as a silly story sung in a foreign language, with arias, ensembles and choruses set to extremely enjoyable, recognizable, and many memorable melodies. Asking to hear another, he listens to (say) “Wozzek” or “Lulu” and sits stupefied, waiting in vain for what the Verdi opera had to offer. Unprepared, he might be turned off “opera” forever, or realize that the word can refer to many varieties.

However, would the scenario be the same if the person had been introduced to the works by seeing a fully staged production of those same works? A recent experience I had was being introduced to two modern operas, one on video and one on CDs, and certain questions came to mind.

A new opera with music by Jonathan Dove has appeared on an Opus Arte DVD called “The Adventures of Pinocchio.” Based closely on the original novel by Carlo Collodi, it tells in 20 scenes the story of the wooden boy who wants to deserve to be turned into a real boy.

The production, filmed at the Sadler’s Wells Theatre in London, is spectacular. The conductor is David Parry. The costume and makeup for Pinocchio (Victoria Simmonds) is remarkable. (She is seen at the very end without the makeup and that is worth the wait.) The makeup and costumes for the Fox, Cat, Snail, Cricket, and other non-human roles are clever and funny.

One can easily see how sanitized the Disney cartoon of “Pinocchio” is by comparison. In the opera, for example, the Cricket intones a few bars of advice and then is squished against the wall by the impatient puppet. No wishing upon a star here!

The score is brilliant, but…. And here we go again! There seems to be a rule in what is wrongly called modern “opera” that not a single memorable melody must appear in the vocal lines. The closest a singer in this work gets to what is almost a melody is the Coachman enticing the boys to hop aboard for a trip to Funland. Therefore I am quite sure my impression of this work would have been a lot cooler if I had heard only the sound portion of the DVD or a CD of the work.

At the same time, there is a 2-CD set on the Troy label of Lee Hoiby’s “The Tempest,” based on the Shakespeare play. Judging from the photos on the cover and booklet, I am sure I would be raving about the production as I have about “Pinocchio.” But alas, while (again) the orchestra is doing marvelous things, the singers are given mostly declamatory vocal lines. “Come unto these yellow sands” approaches a melody, but holds off. The other songs provided by the original are anti-melodic in a dogged way that puts me off the work as a whole.

It is most difficult to take a blank verse or (worse) a prose text and set it to any sort of interesting music. Verdi could in “Falstaff,” his followers could not and their followers, it would seem, cannot. Starting with the long narrative of Prospero (Robert Balonek) to Miranda (Catherine Webber), one is aware of how musically sterile many of the vocal lines tend to be. It is a shame, because the Purchase Opera orchestra and cast under Hugh Murphy sound quite good vocally and dramatically.

It is interesting to think that I would rather hear “Il Trovatore” than see most recent productions, because the score is so utterly enjoyable in both the orchestral and vocal lines, while many productions today have settings and costumes totally out of synch with the action. On the other hand, I avoid hearing “Wozzek” or “Lulu” with their wretched 12-tone straitjackets but do not at all mind seeing a production, if it is intelligently staged. Therefore I know I am being unfair to “The Tempest” and wish fervently for a video of this production that I know I will enjoy to some extent.

Note: Another recent DVD release is of Lorin Maazel’s operatic version of Orwell’s “1984”! I really enjoyed the video production and doubt if I would have wanted to hear more than the first scene or two had it appeared on CDs.

To each his own.