Carolina Theater, Durham, September 30: Long Leaf Opera presented the “East Coast Premiere” of composer Lee Hoiby’s opera The Tempest to a libretto adapted by Mark Shulgasser from Shakespeare’s play. The opera had premiered in Des Moines, Iowa, in 1986, then underwent extensive cutting and was presented in its current version in Dallas in 1996. Both Hoiby and Shulgasser were present and discussed the creation of the opera in a pre-concert lecture and Q&A session.

The Tempest: The production

Now in its sixth season, Long Leaf Opera has come a long way, and this was their most lavish and elaborate production by far. Stage Director Randolph Umberger and Music Director Benjamin Keaton amassed an outstanding production team. A deep cast of excellent young voices graced the production. Baritone Bill McMurray made an imposing Prospero, with a clean, resonant voice and excellent acting. Soprano Teresa Winner Blume as his daughter Miranda was suitably innocent and is a clear lyric soprano but had difficulties being heard over the orchestra and the rest of the largely male cast. Baritone John Oliver as Ferdinand, son of the King of Naples, matched Miranda’s lovesick innocence. His voice blended well in the duets with Miranda.

Hoiby rightly assigned the role of Ariel to a coloratura soprano. Elizabeth Grayson has a good and agile voice and was outfitted with a spectacular costume, but her role was a killer: she was on stage – usually singing and in constant motion – throughout most of the over two hour long opera. Moreover, the high tessitura of the role made the text nearly unintelligible and Ariel has a lot of text important to the plot. As a result, unless you were familiar with the play, it was easy to get lost.

In an unexpected twist of casting, Hoiby assigned the role of the native savage Caliban to a tenor – usually villains and monsters go to bass. Bill Chamberlain did some outstanding acting and singing in some most improbable body contortions. In Act II he had the one of the few arias in the opera, “Be not afraid,” in which he executed a spectacular extended diminuendo on the final note, evoking the loudest cheers of the evening.

Unfortunately, in keeping Shakespeare’s language intact – although cut by some 35 per cent – the libretto was too wordy and much of the opera sounded like a long recitative, with little space for arias and true musical development; this has been a problem with much contemporary opera and makes for somewhat dry and unemotional music. Hoiby also loved some of the scenes too much, extending them beyond their allotted life span in Shakespeare’s original, especially the drinking scene with Caliban, the jester Trinculo (baritone Michael LaRoche) and Stephano (baritone Charles Stanford) at the end of Act I.

The pick-up orchestra of 39 players was large for the small pit. It started off not all together in tune through the overture; but then it got its act straight for the rest of the performance. But Keaton had problems of dynamics, eschewing the dynamic subtleties necessary for good balance with the voices.
Special praise goes to costume designer Maria Savitsky, who created lavish period costumes ranging from the grotesque (Caliban) in a long grass cloak to the ethereal (Ariel) in iridescent feathers and enormous wings. The production was also graced with dancing throughout by choreographer Boleyn Willis’s young corps de ballet, who served as Ariel’s entourage of spirits symbolically bridging the barrier between the worldly (Alonso and their courts) and the magical. They performed a full ballet to the long overture, as well as providing a danced and mimed accompaniment to much of the action. Many of the dancers seemed no more than middle schoolers but were all professional in demeanor and coordination. Finally, lighting designer John Thomas, created imaginative lighting as an excellent substitute for complicated scenery to create everything from tempests to the magical aura of Prospero’s island.

The Tempest and contemporary opera

Nearly 400 years ago, shortly before William Shakespeare penned The Tempest, a heated polemical battle was taking place in Italy between a conservative music theorist, Giovanni Maria Artusi and the young radical Claudio Monteverdi. The issue, in a nutshell, was over Monteverdi’s defense of what he called the seconda prattica, which held that in vocal music the music was the “servant” of the text. The result was a stylistic revolution in music and the birth of opera.

What Monteverdi and his counterparts in the Florentine Camerata had invented was recitative, but within a few years and a couple of “pure” operas out of Florence, even Monteverdi himself perceived the need to break the musical recitation with melody and song. His first offering in the new genre, Orfeo, had a significant number of set pieces, in which the composer’s melodic gifts combined with his attention to prosody.

What has this mini-music history lesson have to do with Hoiby’s Tempest? Unfortunately, quite a lot. Hoiby’s music falls into the category of so much twentieth century opera. While there are some wonderful moments – such as Caliban’s aria, Prospero’s Act 3 abjuration of his magical powers (opening with a passacaglia), Ariel’s Act 1 aria – the opera is largely recitative. Hoiby is a meticulous prosodist, setting the musical line to the shape of the poetic line and meaning of the text; the Florentine Camerata would have approved. But there is a great shortage of melody in the score. A kind of aimless chromaticism prevails that gives way to an aimless (symbolic?) diatonicism for the happy denouement.

The endless recitative is a Wagnerian legacy, his reform of the Italianate style of Rossini Donizetti and Verdi and a return to opera’s first principles – albeit Teutonicized. But this convention has been fraught with traps – especially in the twentieth century – not the least of which has often been dearth of musical interest and libretti muddled by unintelligible pronunciation. And such was the situation in The Tempest. Fortunately, Long Leaf’s cast generally had such excellent diction that attention to Shakespeare’s poetry, the acting and the brilliant production de-emphasized the music. Perhaps that’s what it’s all about, a blending of the arts in which no single one prevails or dominates. Long Leaf’s Tempest had it all: good singing, good costumes, good staging, good dancing, a good libretto and an adequate score – a true Gesamtkunstwerk .