Metropolitan Opera general manager Peter Gelb took the modest-sized stage at (Le) Poisson Rouge in the West Village on Friday, October 26, as the crowd settled in and started placing their drink orders. Referring to the program as "our downtown adventure," he added, to much audience laughter, "Our presence here tonight is not the result of our getting off at the wrong subway station."
While individual Met artists such as Danielle de Niese and Joseph Calleja have been booking LPR for one-off events, Friday night's concert reflected the Met's maiden voyage to the Bleecker Street cabaret bar. The evening's program — presented first at 6:30 PM, then repeated at 9 PM — was curated by composer Thomas Adès, whose opera The Tempest is currently playing at the Met, and who put together an hour's worth of Tempest-related material spanning three centuries of music. (A second event in the Met–LPR collaboration, this time an evening with composer Nico Muhly, is slated for May 14.)
As he explained his selections at the top of the program, Adès displayed a quiet magnetism. Right from the start, the intimate setting seemed to inspire a different kind of interaction between the artists and their audience: it felt warm, informal and personal. In a nice little bit of serendipity, Adès's program included five different settings by five different composers of Ariel's timeless verse "Full fathom five," from Act I of Shakespeare's play.
Countertenor Iestyn Davies sang two of them, first Purcell's, in Adès's arrangement, and later in the program, Michael Tippett's. (Adès played piano all evening.) The piano accompaniment for the Purcell still possessed a Baroque stateliness, but Adès stripped away the formality of the original and forged a more direct emotional connection — at least by modern standards — to the words. Davies's sprite-like timbre was a lovely fit, but for Tippett's gorgeous, unabashedly tonal, just-sentimental-enough setting from 1962, I wanted something more soulful and tender from the vocalist.
Kate Lindsey also received a pair of "Full fathom five" assignments. First, she braved Stravinsky's serialist setting from 1953, sitting alongside the flutist, clarinetist and violist as if she were just one more instrument in the quartet. Her delivery of Ives's "A Sea Dirge" was so devastated (and devastating), embodying the narrative voice so completely, that Adès could not suppress a smile from his seat at the piano. (Afterwards, my companion leaned over to me and said, "She's the Amanda Peet of opera. I'm completely obsessed with her.")
Laure Meloy, who is covering the role of Ariel in The Tempest at the Met — which I saw the following night; my favorite evening at the opera so far this season — sang the version from Adès's opera. (The lyric was reworked as "Five fathoms deeps" by librettist Meredith Oakes, who couldn't help but keep most of Shakespeare's unforgettable language.) She delivered the high siren calls with much success though not without what seemed like fear. In such a small venue, with such a dry, unflattering acoustic, the mercilessness of Adès's sky-high vocal writing was all too apparent.
But when you have a singer like Simon Keenlyside, there's no need to quibble about acoustics. His voice could probably reverberate in a vacuum. His ninety seconds onstage, singing Prospero's "Our revels are ended" from Adès's opera, were magnificent in every way. He somehow scaled his performance to the venue but didn't at all. He was big and impressive but connected to every person in the room, holding his hands up just so, keeping you in his grasp. All I can say is, to hear an artist of Keenlyside's stature booming from the stage not twenty feet away like some kind of secular, seductive operatic god is well worth the two-drink minimum.