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Festival Focus | Opéra de Québec

9:45, 12th February 2013

Report by Karyl Charna Lynn

Only in its second year, the Festival d’opéra de Québec showed itself to be a world-class event with its primary draw, British composer Thomas Adès’ 2004 opera The Tempest.

The Festival is conceived and run by the visionary director of Opéra de Québec, Grégoire Legendre and Quebec native Robert Lepage, best known for directing the Met’s controversial Ring cycle. It was Lepage who managed to convince the Met’s general director Peter Gelb not only to co-produce The Tempest but to allow Quebec to premiere his radical new staging.

The production relocates Caliban’s island to the 18th-century stage of La Scala. (The theatre as a quintessential place of allegory and magic is a key theme in Shakespeare’s play.) The sense of fantasy and transformation was reinforced as the audience’s perspective changed through each act of the opera, starting backstage at La Scala, moving into the auditorium and then to a cross-section of both.

Although the melodic lines are few and climaxes scarce, Adès’ music maintains a narrative flow by conjuring very precise ‘sound worlds’, brilliantly explored by Lepage with spectacular effects and acrobatic movements. The striking production was organically united with the music, allowing the atmosphere of the island to emerge very naturally on stage.

The Tempest opens with one of opera’s great storm scenes: fiery, tempestuous music to which Lepage conjured up brilliant visuals – the focal point of which was an enormous, wildly spinning chandelier, onto which Ariel climbed and to which some shipwrecked souls frantically clung, trying to escape the violent and turbulent seas beneath.

Once on the island (La Scala’s backstage), the opera turned static as Prospero stood Wotan-like with flowing, native robes, elaborate headdress and staff (which shattered at the end), narrating his life story to his daughter, Miranda. His treacherous brother Antonio (Roger Honeywell) and the King of Naples (Gregory Schmidt) in royal dress were spotlighted in La Scala’s royal box.

The action moves on in Act II, set in a fantastical forest of diaphanous trees where Ariel flies around, executing Prospero’s commands. The monstrous Caliban, whose island Prospero has usurped, enters under the stage floorboards, crawling like a beast.

Act III has a dynamic opening: scaffolds filled with a disorderly ‘shipwrecked’ chorus, showing the magnitude of the power struggle at hand.

The cast was top-notch, and Audrey Luna as Ariel was quite amazing. Aside from her extraordinary acrobatic feats, she aced the stratospheric shrills, shrieks, and exceptionally high vocal line. Rod Gilfry made a majestic Prospero both vocally and visually, and Frédéric Antoun brought a believable human side to Caliban. Julie Boulianne sang Miranda with a beautiful delicacy, laced with power; Antonio Fugueora as her lover Ferdinand displayed a fine tenor voice. The biggest applause went to Lepage for his extraordinary vision and to Adès for his impeccable musical direction.

Although The Tempest was the primary attraction, the Festival also offered a broad spectrum of opera-related events, from a clever recreation of a late 13th-century pastoral, Le Jeu de Robin et Marion, to a late 20th-century piece of profoundly moving musical theatre, Nelligan, about the tragic life of Quebec’s greatest poet. Less successful were Tangopéra and Mozart à l’opéra, a disappointing concert of Mozart arias by soprano Karina Gauvin and Les violins du Roy. Opera was even taken into the community with the Brigade Lyrique, a group of young singers who sang outdoors at various public places during the Festival. It was, however, the flawless execution of The Tempest that has set the standard so incredibly high: the challenge for Legendre will be to maintain it.

Robert Lepage’s new production of The Tempest opens at the New York Metropolitan Opera on 23 October, conducted by Thomas Adès with Simon Keenlyside as Prospero, Audrey Luna as Ariel and Alan Oke as Caliban.

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