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.
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