IN: Reviews

Large Forces Mustered in New Tempest


Composer Joseph Summer
Composer Joseph Summer

It takes audacity to write an opera based on a play of Shakespeare’s; even more to use Shakespeare’s own text to do so. The words have a celebrated innate musicality, and actors can invest a lifetime of work to make them sing effectively. Joseph Summer does not lack for nerve, and the product of that boldness was on display Friday at the world premiere of his chamber opera The Tempest at the Somerville Theater.

Audacity is one thing, but producing something justifying hubris of this scale is quite another, and this opera simply fails at the task. Some of this can be blamed on the conditions of the production. Shakespeare’s play demands stagecraft, or at least the creative avoidance of it. Filled with spirits, beasts, magic, goddesses and violent climate, it was originally performed at court, where one could provide (and afford) pageantry. This was a concert presentation which had no theatrical dimensions. The cast sang on risers behind the chamber orchestra, leaving them a tremendous distance from the audience. What interaction there was among characters was awkward and forced. While the Somerville Theater’s acoustic preserves the tonal quality of voices, it doesn’t help with projection. The orchestra’s sound was unblended: the piano, strings, woodwinds and brasses all occupied their own acoustic space. The brass especially often stuck out awkwardly, no matter how quietly they played.

Summer’s harmonic language is tonal and predominantly consonant, with a bit of rhythmic swing, and occasional moments of pungency. Any five minutes of the score heard in isolation would strike one as fluid and colorful, though his palette is primarily pastel and avoids sharp contrast. But heard at length, it becomes difficult to understand why one idea is used rather than another, and the constant flow of sound becomes tiring. He certainly does not lack for musical ideas. Some work: a moment of bouncing bows provided an effective introduction an aria for Caliban. But others just lead to head scratching. The raucous timbres of the natural horn can be effective, but it was unclear why Summer chose to include one here. Caliban gargles when he takes his first drink of alcohol, a gesture that makes little dramatic sense and certainly doesn’t help illuminate the text, but it did coax a wan laugh from the audience.

The libretto was written by Summer’s daughter Eve, who has some experience with opera direction: her biography mentions assistant directing at Boston Lyric Opera, as well as assisting Tim Albery with this year’s Katya Kabanova. No printed libretto or surtitles were provided, but as near as I could tell the entire libretto is drawn directly from the play; all of the major plot points are hit, and most of the famous lines appear, though you might strain to understand them. Summer’s vocal writing has a cool lyricism, and he suits mood to text well. But the vocal lines are frequently deaf to the existing rhythm and music of the words, and much of the time the words are difficult to comprehend. Where there was more than one person the words were sure to be obliterated, and there were many ensemble numbers. When singing with little or no accompaniment, the vocalists could be understood, so the blame must fall on the music or the venue.

The work was presented by The Shakespeare Concerts, of which Summer is the Executive Director. The forces mustered to realize this work were substantial: a 17- piece orchestra directed by Stefan Lano in addition to a 13-person cast, plus with eight credited covers. The vocalists all did creditable work; most notable among them were Katherine Pracht and David Salsbery Fry, who invested Arial and Caliban with appropriately airy and earthy personalities. Prospero was played by Christian Van Horn, who alone among the cast had the power to completely overcome the limitations of the room. He had a welcome immediate presence, and projected power and authority.

Ultimately, the composer uses the famous words and powerful characters from The Tempest as scaffolding over which drapes his own musical creation, and it inevitably suffers by comparison. Summer certainly identifies with the play; in his program note he writes: “Everything that Shakespeare limned in the play is about the life of my family, in fine detail. It’s not as if incidents of The Tempest make brief appearances or, indeed, happen only once. The plot elements embrace us repeatedly.” He means this literally, and to prove this thesis goes on to describe “banishment” from Tennessee, living on an island, and a couple of boat mishaps. Perhaps these coincidences can help explain how he could look on the immense ocean of Shakespeare’s final play, and see only his own reflection.

Brian Schuth graduated from Harvard with a Philosophy degree, so in lieu of a normal career he has been a clarinetist, theater director and software engineer. He currently resides in Boston after spending the last 15 years in Eastport, Maine.
Baritone Christian Van Horn

For the record, the singers unmentioned in the review are:

Ferdinand: Neal Ferreira
Miranda: Kathryn Guthrie
Alonso: James Maddalena
Antonio: Christopher Burchett
Stephano: Andy Papas
Sebastian: Ethan Bremner
Trinculo: Glorivy Arroyo
Iris: Jessica Lennick
Juno: Andrea Chenoweth
Ceres: Sophie Michaux



2 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. Brian Schuth writes: “Some of [Schuth’s negative response to Joseph Summer’s opera “The Tempest”] can be blamed on the conditions of the production. Shakespeare’s play demands stagecraft, or at least the creative avoidance of it. Filled with spirits, beasts, magic, goddesses and violent climate, it was originally performed at court, where one could provide (and afford) pageantry. This was a concert presentation which had no theatrical dimensions.”

    This statement utterly disqualifies Schuth as a credible reviewer of opera. This is NOT Shakespeare’s play; it is an OPERA, which is an entirely different genre than a spoken play, just as Verdi’s “Otello” is NOT Shakespeare’s “Othello”, or Britten’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream” is NOT the same as Shakespeare’s play.

    Orchestras all over the world frequently perform operas concert-style, omitting the theatrical dimension (for one thing, this format saves enormously on production costs). If the performance is good, audiences applaud just as vociferously as they would for a fully staged performance.

    This is because (as Italians have said for at least 300 years) opera is “dramma PER musics” (“drama THROUGH music”). That is, the opera composer EMBEDS the drama in the musical score. This is the absolute opposite of the use of “incidental music” used to enhance a SPOKEN PLAY.

    Sound recording is a little more than 100 years old. Around 1947, the advent of 33-&1/3 LP’s made it possible to release complete operas in AUDIO ONLY format, so that, for example, “La Boheme” could now be recorded on 2 LP’s. That market became wildly popular for decades. All the listener needed to completely enjoy an AUDIO ONLY opera recording was a bilingual libretto to follow while listening. (Operas on VHS and DVD are a relatively recent phenomenon).

    And for 80 years radio listeners have looked forward to AUDIO ONLY broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera on Saturday afternoons.

    Notice that there is NO comparable market for AUDIO ONLY SPOKEN PLAYS (except for a few by Shakespeare). This is because spoken plays DEMAND VISIBLE ACTION (that’s why the performers are called “actors”).

    I attended this “Tempest” performance, and I found the use of a chamber orchestra delightful, mainly because 2 first violins had a more incisive, even personal timbre than the lush but rather impersonal 10 or 20 first violins of a full orchestra. Joseph Summer instead took advantage of the rainbow of individual instrumental colors, which OF COURSE were “unblended”.

    Joseph Summer composes unapologetically, shamelessly BEAUTIFUL MUSIC. He is secure enough in both imagination and technique not to have to be trapped in any of the musical ideologies (experiments, really) which proliferated like toadstools throughout the 20th Century (such as serialism, minimalism.aleatoric music, “music of stasis”, etc.), though he is sophisticated enough to take advantage of these techniques occasionally.

    Brian Schuth holds a Ph.D. in Philosophy, which is an assurance that he is expert in words and abstractions. His review of Joseph Summer’s “The Tempest” provides not the slightest evidence that he is competent to review music, which is an art of physical and sensuous immediacy.

    Solomon Epstein,

    D.M.A. in Composition/Orchestration,
    Hartt School of Music, University of Hartford

    M.Mus. in Voice/Opera,
    Yale University School of Music

    Comment by Solomon Epstein — April 26, 2015 at 3:37 pm

  2. It is unclear from Solomon Epstein’s comment whether he means that writing, performing, reviewing music, or music itself is “…an art of physical and sensuous immediacy,” whatever that means.

    It has been my observation that the possession of an advanced degree in a musical sphere does not guarantee that the possessor has the requisite emotional intelligence to sense the affect of a performance. Nor have i found that a group of music professionals can ever agree on the merits of what they have just heard.

    Brian Schuth has a particularly vivid and valuable ability to describe what he hears. He is also entirely open minded about new music.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — April 28, 2015 at 8:03 am

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