Des Moines opera premi`eres Hoiby's `Tempest'

Lee Hoiby's new opera, ``The Tempest,'' based on Shakespeare's play, had its world premi`ere in the middle of a raging thunderstorm. The rain pelted down on the uninsulated roof here at the Des Moines Metro Opera, drowning out several quiet moments in the process. And that was a pity, since this is, overall, a gracious, effective opera that aims to let singers really sing.

Hoiby and his librettist, Mark Shulgasser, strove to keep as much of Shakespeare as possible in the work. This romantic drama centers on the exiled magician, Prospero, who has been ousted from his throne and set adrift on the sea with his daughter, Miranda. They land on a deserted island and live there for 12 years, served by various spirits, including Ariel, and by Caliban, a misshapen monster. Prospero, with his magical powers, causes the shipwreck of the King of Naples and his son Ferdinand, who thinks he alone is the sole survivor. Miranda and Ferdinand meet, fall in love, and pledge their faithfulness to each other.

The evil King of Naples eventually repents his cruelty after being tormented by Ariel and is reconciled to Prospero and son Ferdinand. The ship magically reappears, and Prospero and the others happily prepare to leave the island. Caliban, after providing a bit of foolery with two clowns, is left as the island's sole inhabitant.

Some scenes were reordered, some speeches trimmed back, but overall, this is more a reduction of Shakespeare rather than an operatic treatment loosely based on the Bard's play.

Hoiby offers a traditional three-act opera complete with preludes, interludes, arias, duets, trios, large ensembles, and rousing finales. The music is emphatically romantic and imagistic, now turbulent, now radiantly calm. It is richly orchestrated -- on occasion rather too heavily so, overpowering some of the voices.

Hoiby does not so much comment on or offset the words as surround them in a bath of melody. He constructs his scenes in long arches in this work, as he did in ``Summer and Smoke,'' his last opera, first heard in 1971. Perhaps this is why Mr. Shulgasser opted for an ongoing narrative, rather than a libretto that puts Prospero into a clear, central focus.

One comes away from this opera with a sense that this is nothing more than a simple story. That is not, in itself, a mistake, but Shakespeare's play explores the tensions between illusion and reality -- something that is lost in the opera.

Nevertheless, Shulgasser has kept a nice Bardian flavor in the language. And Hoiby manages his musical narrative very well indeed, even if he downplays the feeling of a magical kingdom, where vistas change in the twinkling of an eye, where tempest-tossed voyagers arrive on shore not even damp, where Prospero's fairy-servant Ariel is constantly watching over all the little dramas transpiring on this mythical island.

Hoiby lets us hear the beauty of the island's music. The storm music is consistently effective.

Most of the principal roles have arias that are full of character and even haunting: The songs give a subtext, an extra hidden emotion that lurks under the surface of the text.

This is especially true for Caliban, the monster-creature of tremendous dignity. He has extended moments of uncommon poignancy in this opera that convey the anxiety, as well as the tragedy, of his life in this story.

The Des Moines Metro Opera assembled a fine cast for this venture. Top vocal honors went to Constance Hauman as Ariel -- a limpid-sounding coloratura who is accurate, expressive, and gifted with a radiant stage presence. Tenor Jacque Trussel brought out the pathos in Caliban, as well as the dignity, and was at all times exemplary in matters of diction and histrionic restraint.

Other standouts included Peter Van Derick's noble Prospero, William Walker's forthright (if occasionally too stentorian) King of Naples, Amy Burton's Iris, and Donna Bruno's Ceres.

Robert L. Larsen, artistic director, conducted the remarkable Metro Opera Orchestra. Mr. Larsen tended to settle into some rather protracted tempos and let some of his singers -- particularly the clowns -- slow things down even further. Nevertheless, he has built a fine orchestra that displayed poise in coping with a new score.

Unfortunately, Larsen is also the stage director, and, as was seen in the preceding night's production of Verdi's ``Falstaff,'' his ideas of staging are locked in a grim sort of time warp, back in the era when lurching, mugging, and hammy histrionics were the norm for operatic acting.

The sets for the show were also desperately over-designed by Tony Norrenbrock, and this was oppressive to the opera, sometimes making it hard to really concentrate on Hoiby's often eloquent music.

The stage was so congested with set pieces, that it was almost dangerous. At the appearance of the Harpy (which took entirely too long to be effective) a small fire broke out; it was quickly, if rather obviously, extinguished by two stage managers.

What is the future of this ``Tempest''?

It depends on whether opera companies want a sincerely crafted, heartfelt work on their stages or not. The opera would surely be welcomed by the New York City Opera's audiences, who so vocally approved of another ``old-fashioned'' new opera, Dominick Argento's merry ``Casanova's Homecoming.''

Hoiby needs to trim some things away. The two clowns consistently stop the action, as does the character of Gonzalo. Some of the scenes with the King's entourage overstay their welcome. Some of Prospero's expository moments in the first scene could use some pruning as well.

One would like to sense more of the ever-changing magical world in which the opera is set.

But most of the score is handsome. Except for the thickly orchestrated and altogether unmenacing Harpy scene, Ariel's music is especially memorable. Those preludes and interludes I recall with pleasure; the duets for Ferdinand and Miranda, Caliban's arias, the Act III masque, and so many other moments are superbly singable and downright beautiful.

The Des Moines Metro Opera's achievement in mounting this work is commendable, even with the shortcomings cited above. But if the company is to continue to grow, it will have to keep abreast of the operatic/theatrical times. Otherwise the troupe will settle back into a provincial status incompatible with the best of what Robert Larsen has accomplished here.

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