> Opera and Oratorio
Pracht, Guthrie, G. Arroyo; Van Horn, Fry, Ferreira, Maddelena, Burchett; The Shakespeare Concerts Ensemble, Lano. English libretto. Albany Records TROY 1609/10 (2)
COMPOSER JOSEPH SUMMER seems to have been destined to write an opera adaptation of Shakespeare’s Tempest. As he relates in the notes, he and his family practically lived the story: they were exiled from their native Tennessee (he doesn’t provide details), fled to the Virgin Islands and were later allowed to return home—with compensation and apologies. Summer’s brother was present, just as Prospero’s brother Antonio shows up in the play. His own young daughter even blamed him for the weather once, as Miranda (accurately) blames Prospero for the storm. That daughter, Eve Summer (who, we are told, memorized the entire play before she was nine), is now grown up and adapted the libretto for her father’s opera.
Summer has serious competition from other Tempest settings, including well-regarded versions by Thomas Adès, Lee Hoiby and Frank Martin. Yet Summer has something unique to say; he has lived with these characters for a long time. His musical language is comfortably tonal but sophisticated, ceaselessly inventive and often gripping; he’s a vivid musical storyteller. He favors ensembles, from duets and trios on up to octets, and he writes for multiple voices as well as any contemporary opera composer. It’s an embarrassment of riches—the marvelous group numbers just keep coming, culminating in the penultimate scene, which builds to a blazingly celebratory climax. Best of all is an extended trio scene for the spirits Iris, Juno and Ceres, showering blessings on the bride and groom. This lasts for about twenty-five minutes, but it’s gorgeous writing, first for duet and then trio, and it just gets better. Iris is a coloratura soprano, with wild swoops up to high Es and Fs, brilliantly rendered by the dazzling Jessica Lennick, who also blends superbly with the warm, colorful mezzo Sophie Michaux and resplendent soprano Andrea Chenoweth in opulent three-part harmony.
Summer has created many meaty, rewarding roles in this opera, starting with Prospero, performed by cavernous and charismatic bass-baritone Christian Van Horn, who is grand and formidable throughout; in his final monologue, he also shows tenderness and great depth of feeling. Mezzo Katherine Pracht, as Ariel, pours forth rich, enveloping sound with well-articulated diction, using her vibrato to add expression and emotion. Her “Full fathom five,” in Summer’s haunting setting, is a highlight of the piece. Luscious soprano Kathryn Guthrie is wonderfully romantic as Miranda, especially when paired with tenor Neal Ferreira (as Ferdinand), who has a distinctively bright, ringing timbre. Their remarkable free-form, recit-style duet captures the exciting unmoored state of exploring new love. Caliban (Prospero’s slave), whose entrance is marked by swirling, pounding music, is sung with granite-like tone by the reverberant bass David Salsbery Fry. Versatile and communicative mezzo Glorivy Arroyo sings Trinculo (King Alonso’s jester); she fashions a pointed, colorful characterization, spitting out her consonants and turning her aria into an actor’s showcase. We are also treated to strong contributions from bad-guys James Maddalena (Alonso, King of Naples), Christopher Burchett (Prospero’s brother, Antonio), Andy Papas (the King’s butler, Stephano) and Ethan Bremner (the King’s brother, Sebastian).
Virtuoso pianist Miroslav Sekera is MVP of the ace, seventeen-piece Shakespeare Concerts Ensemble, led assuredly by Stefan Lano; Sekera is sole accompanist for several extended passages and has some brilliant solos. Harpist Franziska Huhn, also featured frequently, is a close second. This release is a triumph for Summer and his superb forces. —Joshua Rosenblum