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Ionarts in Santa Fe: The Tempest Revisited

This is a follow-up to my review of The Tempest (2004), an opera by Thomas Adès, now in its American premiere at Santa Fe Opera. These remarks are based on a second hearing of the work last night.

New Mexico has been having a strange summer, at least in comparison to recent ones. My memory of previous summer visits has been of bone dryness, to the point that it took several days for my eyes to adapt to the lack of humidity and not feel like they were going to dry up and turn to dust. Family members here assure me that this is normally the "monsoon season" in northern New Mexico, meaning that there are regular spells of rain, usually in the afternoon. The mountains divide up the area into small microclimates, and we can often see from one place rain falling on another place. On the way down to the Santa Fe Opera last night, for the second performance of The Tempest, I saw seven separate rainbows shimmering over small storms, through none of which my car actually passed. I am sorry to report that it is very difficult for an amateur to take a digital photograph of a rainbow, especially from a car pulled over to the side of a freeway.

Fellow Washingtonians, there is another reason that I love to leave the District of Columbia for New Mexico this time of year, and that is the cool, dry nights wearing a jacket to stay warm in the Crosby Theater. After several episodes of drenching rain near where I am staying, I was hoping that the New Mexico climate would oblige the premiere of The Tempest with a thunderstorm. Alas, it was not to be, although there were a few flashes of lightning in the distance. Last night, that wish came true, and most members of the audience took their seats a little soggy from a cloudburst that hovered over Tesuque for most of the evening. At the moment that the pre-curtain announcement ended, the traditional reminder to turn off cell phones and pagers was punctuated with a flash of lightning and rumble of thunder, followed by a nervous twitter of audience laughter. In spite of the nuisance of rain at intermission, the mild storm added a perfect atmospheric background.

Rod Gilfry as Prospero and Cyndia Sieden as Ariel, The Tempest, Santa Fe Opera, set and costumes designed by Paul Brown, photo by Ken Howard © 2006
Rod Gilfry as Prospero and Cyndia Sieden as Ariel, "Farewell to Ariel," The Tempest, Santa Fe Opera, set and costumes designed by Paul Brown, photo by Ken Howard © 2006
After a second listening, none of the opinions I expressed in my review, positive and negative, have changed. It is an exquisite opera, one that I expect to listen to many more times when a recording and/or DVD becomes available. I noticed more of the details, spending some time looking at the instrumentation in the orchestra pit: heavy on the bass (two bassoons and contrabassoon) and the treble and metallic (flute, piccolo, harp, celesta, glockenspiel, piano). There was even a rather large tree branch in the percussion section, meant to be shaken, I guess, or perhaps rustled over a snare drum. Hopefully some day, Ionarts will be so famous that opera houses will let me sit in the orchestra pit one night.

The other thing that has been rumbling around in the back of my brain was a comment that Adès made at the symposium I attended. He said that he used 18th-century music as a model for the music of The Court in the opera. In particular, he had Baroque dance music in mind, I think, music that for one page, as he put it, sets a mood and then on the next page there is a completely different mood. I am working on a theory about Shakespeare's play The Tempest, that it could actually be about a court ballet, or masque, as they were called in England. In fact, Louis XIII and Louis XIV both hosted any number of court ballets, in which the guests were given costumes and masks and the whole court pretended to be in an imaginary world, often on an enchanted island. During the period of the entertainment, often just a day but up to as many as three days, all sorts of things could happen and all bets were off.

The time of the first performance of Shakespeare's play is thought to be in 1611. Shakespeare was certainly familiar with the court masque, since at this time Ben Jonson was the principal author of masques in the English court. In fact, in 1616, Jonson created a masque at Whitehall, which was attended by Pocahontas (see this post for more information). The theme of colonialism now usually analyzed in The Tempest (Caliban claims to be king of the island that Prospero rules as overlord by his superior power) has an alluring source in that occasion. In fact, I wonder if the Jamestown settlement was at all in Shakespeare's mind as he wrote The Tempest. He apparently had read some accounts of shipwrecks on Caribbean islands.

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