To attempt writing an opera based on the greatest of Shakespeare's last plays, ``The Tempest,'' takes bravura. To succeed admirably involves a kind of supernatural alchemy that would have made Prospero, the philosopher-magician of ``The Tempest,'' exceedingly proud. Some of Prospero's magical powers must have rubbed off on composer John Eaton, who, along with the talented help of producers, designers, lighting experts, and singers, has created a world premi`ere for the Santa Fe Opera that may well be one of its most memorable and daring productions.
And why not try ``The Tempest'' as opera? Of all Shakespeare's plays, this story of an exiled magician and his daughter is the one most infused with music. The lonely island they inhabit is, as one of the characters puts it, ``full of noises . . . that give delight and hurt not.''
This production is so enchanting you don't realize you've left the conventional world of tried and true opera and entered the imaginative world of contemporary music. Lush arias, jazz combos, electronic music, Renaissance music, and microtonal music played by full orchestra are all interlaced in a way that joins diversity, just as Prospero's superhuman powers unite and reconcile all the conflicting elements of Shakespeare's play. It is pure alchemy, and the musical plurality captures the ma gical essence of the island.
The audience gets its fill of melodic singing, but one never hears pat arias in the traditional sense. Microtonal effects -- sometimes in the voice, but especially in the orchestra -- allow magical, slippery sliding through the entire pitch range, as in Mideastern music. In addition, very few of the characters actually have a ``beat.'' According to Eaton, each has his own musical tempo, and they sing slowly or quickly to express their own time sense as well as their own psychology.
Each character also has his own type of music. Jazz accompanies the earthy, ``brutish'' Caliban, son of a witch. Eaton has defied convention (and upset a few audience members) by giving the role to a woman. Mezzo-soprano Ann Howard, wearing an animal hide, sings Caliban's music in a comic, big-mamma blues manner. The audience loved it, and the music certainly added a contemporary touch in Shakespeare's best lowbrow sense.
When Caliban and simpletons Stephano and Trinculo get roaringly drunk, their accompanying music is a jazz trio of alto sax, electronic guitar, and a bass which gradually loses its beat as the characters lose control of their own beat.
Renaissance instruments (recorder, shawm, lute) accompany mezzo Susan Quittmeyer's beautifully sung Ariel, the creature of light who is Prospero's free-spirited alter ego.
Prospero is magnificently sung and acted by Timothy Noble, who has enormous richness of voice, as well as a big Shakespearean presence of King Lear dimensions -- rare in a singer. Miranda's enormously difficult, florid arias are sung with brilliance and ease by coloratura Sally Wolf, who also captures perfectly the character's innocence. Colenton Freeman, a tenor who plays Ferdinand, has a big voice, but it's very strained in the higher ranges, partly because of the part's high tessitura. In
the masque section, Melanie Helton as Iris is particularly noteworthy for her clean coloratura.
Bliss Hebert, who has directed countless productions at Santa Fe, as well as around the world, has again proved himself a master, pulling off this world premi`ere with the ease of a sorcerer. Conductor Richard Bradshaw must have enormous talent to make a meaningful musical whole out of all the delightfully disparate elements and yet keep them in line.
The libretto by Andrew Porter, music critic of The New Yorker, is a gem. It includes all the essential dramatic action and the memorable Shakespearean lines and songs such as ``Where the bee sucks, there suck I,'' ``Full fathom five my father lies,'' ``O brave new world that has such people in it''; yet it leaves the music to define atmosphere, character, and emotion.
The scenic effects, too, are full of enchantment. Scene and costume designer Allen Charles Klein and lighting designer Craig Miller have woven together a miraculous spectacle of dense forest that is periodically green, silver, and gold, according to the mood on stage. Flashing through the foliage is the aura of Ariel, appearing and vanishing into thin air. Since Ariel is a spirit, this was particularly appropriate, and made her seem a creature of light and air. The illusion was strengthened by the prese nce of several other shadowy ``Ariels,'' who made her appear to be everywhere on stage at the same time, and by special effects that made her voice echo and seem mysteriously omnipresent. Ariel's black (and therefore invisible) costume was covered with tiny scattered lights that flashed on and off, controlled by battery packs attached to a cord that had to be plugged in before the character appeared each time on stage. According to mezzo Quittmeyer, Ariel can move only as far as her umbilical wire allows he r to. But on stage, it's sheer magic.
The final performance of ``The Tempest'' will take place on Friday.