It's likely that audiences exiting the Metropolitan Opera after Robert Lepage's eye-popping production of The Tempest, based on Shakespeare's great drama, will be in a state of uncertainty as to whether they greatly admire or strongly resist what they've just experienced.
Audiences will be challenged by the sometimes agitated, and sometimes lyrical Thomas Ades score with its brave new world of expression, its homage to beloved conventions, its love duets, and its contrapuntal combos. And since it's all conducted by Ades, what is heard is precisely what the composer desires.
Starting with a propulsive overture describing the storm whipped up by the magician Prospero (Simon Keenlyside, for whom the role was written), the work continues through three acts as it tells the story of Prospero and his fellow island-dwellers, including beloved daughter Miranda (Isabel Leonard, whose mezzo-soprano has a fine-wine quality) and her lover Ferdinand (Alek Shrader, whose tenor is a match for his youthful good looks).
Among Ades' melodic innovations is the jaggedly demanding lines he has written for the angry, energetic sprite Ariel (Audrey Luna, who at one point runs through something like 17 high Es and works her lithe body as if caught in a Bob Fosse routine). Moreover, Ariel's arias are so airy they seem to be operating in a previously unexplored stratosphere. Luckily, Luna soars there, although not entirely intelligibly much of the time.
There is also little cause for consternation over Lepage's physical presentation. Designer Jasmine Catudal's set conjures in each act a different view of the Milanese opera house La Scala -- the idea being to imply Prospero is creating a replica of his homeland. Meanwhile Kym Barrett's costumes, including ballgowns lavished on the chorus-as-courtiers, glitter and flow, as does Michael Beaulieu's lighting.
Conversely, the work's problems lie in the liberties Meredith Oakes takes with the Bard's plot and language. It's somewhat egregious that the librettist has rethought some of the Bard's story line and characterizations, particularly Prospero's vengeful behavior --which Keenlyside vivifies superlatively.
More disturbingly, so much of what is sung lacks verbal music, due to many mismatched rhymes and changes of phrasing. In the end, Oakes' work dilutes the power of this often exhilarating and exemplary modern opera.