Mu­sic del­uged in ‘Tempest’

Stag­ing took cen­ter stage as the L.A. Phil per­formed Si­belius’ en­tire “Tempest.”

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - MARK SWED MU­SIC CRITIC mark.swed@la­times.com

More than “Romeo and Juliet,” even more than “A Mid­sum­mer’s Night Dream,” “The Tempest” is Shake­speare’s play most tempt­ing for mu­sic. If Wikipedia is to be be­lieved, it has in­spired at least 46 op­eras, to say noth­ing of reams of in­ci­den­tal mu­sic from Pur­cell to the present, along with sym­phonic po­ems, songs, bal­let and film scores, and what­not.

Yet sur­pris­ingly few “Tempest” projects have stirred a tempest. No “Tempest” op­eras, for in­stance, have en­tered the stan­dard reper­tory, al­though Thomas Adès’ deliri­ous 2004 ef­fort has a good chance. Among the wor­thy but ne­glected is, for in­stance, John Eaton’s daz­zling mi­cro­tonal “Tempest” pre­miered at Santa Fe Opera in 1985 and then for­got­ten. So too Si­belius’ hour’s worth of weirdly melan­cholic in­ci­den­tal mu­sic he wrote at the end of his ca­reer, a mas­ter’s late mu­sic for an­other mas­ter’s last play.

What to do? Call the L.A. Phil.

Hav­ing a full day off from mak­ing op­er­atic his­tory, as it had Tues­day night by be­ing the first Amer­i­can in­sti­tu­tion to mount the most im­por­tant ne­glected Amer­i­can opera, John Cage’s “Eur­op­eras 1 & 2” at the Sony Stu­dios, the ir­re­press­ible Los An­ge­les Phil­har­monic set out Thurs­day night at Walt Dis­ney Con­cert Hall to make the­atri­cal his­tory with the U.S. pre­miere of Si­belius’ com­plete “Tempest” score.

The 36 num­bers of in­ci­den­tal mu­sic were pre­sented more or less in the man­ner in­tended. Con­ducted by the or­ches­tra’s prin­ci­pal guest con­duc­tor, Su­sanna Mälkki, they ac­com­pa­nied a pro­duc­tion of Shake­speare’s play the Los An­ge­les Phil­har­monic com­mis­sioned from the Old Globe in San Diego. That in­cluded sets, cos­tumes, bal­let and video. Vo­cal soloists and the Los An­ge­les Mas­ter Cho­rale were also em­ployed. It had to have cost a bun­dle.

Was that enough? No. To add even greater con­text, the sound artist Chris Kallmyer be­fore the con­cert stood on a lad­der on the street in front of the hall and poured wa­ter from a teapot into a bucket. Part of the L.A. Phil’s Fluxus fes­ti­val, cel­e­brat­ing the an­ar­chic art move­ment, his per­for­mance of Ge­orge Brecht’s 1962 “Drip Piece” not only served to add a proper tempest-ina-teapot wa­tery at­mos­phere for Shake­speare’s ship­wreck play but also set the tone for the ex­per­i­men­tal and un­ex­pected as the best “Tempest” mu­sic has done.

Maybe this is a good place to point out that the first elec­tronic mu­sic film sound­track was by Bebe and Louis Bar­ron for the 1956 “Tempest”-in­spired sci-fi mas­ter­piece, “For­bid­den Planet.” Not only was that score in­flu­enced by John Cage, but Brecht had been a stu­dent of Cage. It all ties in.

Ex­cept it doesn’t. Rather than trust the strange­ness of Si­belius and a ca­pac­ity of ex­per­i­men­tal­ism unique to the L.A. Phil, di­rec­tor Barry Edel­stein over­saw a pro­duc­tion that over­whelmed an un­con­ven­tional com­poser, or­ches­tra, con­cert hall and play in the­atri­cal con­ven­tion­al­ity.

The mu­si­cians and con­duc­tor were sent to the back of the bus, shoved against the rear wall of the stage. The front half of the stage con­tained a set dom­i­nated by a curved bridge made of lum­ber, piv­oted on one end by a lad­der (miss­ing the op­por­tu­nity, how­ever, to in any way re­late this to “Drip Piece”). Oth­er­wise, there were var­i­ous wooden props, an um­brella and the like, to ner­vously mess with when lack­ing other op­tions for dis­tract­ing from the score.

Work­ing with Mälkki, Edel­stein some­what re­fash­ioned Si­belius’ score, want­ing to give new con­text to the com­poser’s cu­ri­ous dra­matic choices so that they would fit with his own con­cept of the play, which was nec­es­sar­ily trimmed to fit into a con­cert for­mat.

Of course, what makes Si­belius’ score so in­ter­est­ing is his many un­ex­pected choices. He wrote for the spe­cific de­mands of a 1926 Fin­nish-lan­guage pro­duc­tion in Helsinki and, be­ing Fin­nish, of­fers an unusu­ally gloomy slant on the drama. He also wanted many pe­cu­liar ef­fects like putting a harp and har­mo­nium above the stage. Most num­bers are very short. The mu­sic is fleet­ing and de­tails ex­tremely sub­tle.

What lit­tle mu­si­cal at­mos­phere, let alone im­me­di­acy, re­mained pos­si­ble with the or­ches­tra tucked away was fur­ther hin­dered by Jonathan Burke’s over­bear­ing Broad­way-style sound de­sign. When ac­tors spoke over the mu­sic, they were given so much re­ver­ber­a­tion that they not only drowned out Si­belius but be­came, them­selves, mostly un­in­tel­li­gi­ble. Lior Ashke­nazi’s pro­saic Pros­pero fared the worst, his Is­raeli ac­cent adding a fur­ther de­ter­rent to com­pre­hen­sion.

Ju­dith Dolan’s cos­tumes were pe­riod pieces with the req­ui­site con­tem­po­rary at­ti­tude. Jeff Sugg’s video de­sign on a huge screen of­fered shad­ows, float­ing trans­la­tions for Si­belius’ Fin­nish lan­guage songs, and flower prints. Patrick McCol­lum’s chore­og­ra­phy was flashy.

Mainly, though, ev­ery­one and ev­ery­thing other than the mu­si­cians fought with Si­belius, whose late-pe­riod moody re­fine­ment pro­vided lit­tle help for the bright lights of Broad­way.

There were, how­ever, a few bright spots, be­gin­ning with the five vo­cal soloists who also stood in the back (El­iz­a­beth DeShong, Ying Fang, Ti­mothy Mix, Jar­rett Ott and Joshua Wheeker). In the play’s cast, a girl­ish Mi­randa (Au­drey Corsa) and vol­u­ble Fer­di­nand (Gran­tham Cole­man) made for win­ning lovers. Ariel (Beth Mal­one) en­tranc­ingly flew on the arms of dancers yet seemed an oth­er­wise earth­bound sprite. Cal­iban (Tom McGowan) came across as a lov­able goon. Triculo (Kevin Ca­hoon) and Stephano (Peter MacNi­col) laid the slap­stick on thick.

As for magic, that is where the mu­sic is sup­posed to come in. In “Eur­op­eras 1 & 2” I had won­dered whether the or­ches­tra was maybe too prom­i­nent on stage. I now have sec­ond thoughts. That cer­tainly, as this “Tempest” demon­strated, beats the al­ter­na­tive.

Si­belius’ score re­thinks “The Tempest.” It ends in sub­dued epi­logue. Mov­ing mu­sic around, Edel­stein found some­thing more feel­good from else­where in the score to speed our step to our cars af­ter­ward. He didn’t need to try so hard. Many in the au­di­ence were al­ready long gone.

Pho­to­graphs by Mathew Imag­ing

A THE­ATRI­CAL stag­ing of Shake­speare’s “The Tempest” — with Au­drey Corsa as Mi­randa and Lior Ashke­nazi as Pros­pero — was pre­sented with Si­belius’ mu­sic.

THE SPRITE Ariel is played by Beth Mal­one in a the­atri­cal stag­ing by the Old Globe’s Barry Edel­stein.

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