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Scene from The Tempest Songbook [Photo by Julieta Cervantes]
29 Mar 2015

The Tempest Songbook, Gotham Chamber Opera

Gotham Chamber Opera’s latest project, The Tempest Songbook, continues to explore the possibilities of unconventional spaces and unconventional programs that the company has made its hallmark. The results were musically and theatrically thought-provoking, and left me wanting more.

Henry Purcell/Kaija Saariaho: The Tempest Songbook

Above: Scene from The Tempest Songbook

Photos by Julieta Cervantes


A co-production with The Martha Graham Dance Company, the evening’s program was directed and choreographed by Luca Veggetti. The narrative of The Tempest is so deliberately surrealistic that I found the resistance of narrative in the program engaging, rather than the reverse. To this Shakespeare aficionado, the interpolations by Dryden sounded strange, but it was these interpolations that much of the 1712 incidental music, attributed to Henry Purcell, was designed to set. The Purcell and Kaija Saariaho‘s 2004 Tempest Songbook for soprano, baritone and period instrument ensemble intertwined in fascinating ways. In this version, it was receiving its world premiere, and I loved the textures of harpsichord, recorder, and archlute (archlute!) in Saariaho’s unconventional harmonies. It was at Saariaho’s suggestion that the two pieces appeared thus interwoven, and the dialogue between them was musically rich and intellectually stimulating.


The creative set design was by Jean-Baptiste Barrière. It seems almost a misnomer to call it minimalist, so richly multivalent was the globe that hung elegantly suspended by ropes reminiscent of the fated ship’s rigging. Light projections onto it were skillfully used to evoke globes of the kind so beloved at the courts of early modern Europe, with seas and continents shifting under maps of the zodiac, charts of the stars. Images of the singers and dancers also often appeared there, mirroring and amplifying the action on the stage. The music of Purcell and Saariaho appeared in alternate sections throughout most of the evening, with a suite of Saariaho’s songs in the second half of the hour-long program, which was performed without intermission. From a fairly straightforward presentation of the initial scenes of The Tempest, with the panic and anger of the Bosun, and the terror and sorrow of Miranda, the structure became increasingly impressionistic, with Saariaho’s music allowing Ariel and Caliban (for instance) much more time than the source material gives them.

Eight musicians of the Gotham Chamber Opera orchestra played with admirable verve and versatility under the leadership of Neal Goren. Transitions between the baroque and the contemporary never felt rough or forced. I enjoyed not only the brio with which they handled the moods of the Purcell, from ceremonial to cheerful, but the skill with which they explored the rich and varied textures of the Saariaho. This was especially notable in the Bosun’s Lament, where the orchestra musicians echoed the “Roaring, shrieking, howling” of the spirits described by the increasingly desperate seaman. As we moved to Prospero’s isle, the dancers began to take turns in center stage, sometimes mirroring the movements of the singers, sometimes giving bodily expression (with skill that took my breath away) to the emotions they voiced. In acting for Ariel and Caliban, respectively, Peiju Chien-Pott and Abdiel Jacobsen gave performances of extraordinary intensity.


Soprano Jennifer Zetlan and bass-baritone Thomas Richards faced the challenges not only of singing music in two very different styles, but of voicing a diverse array of characters: Prospero and Miranda; Ariel and Caliban; the bosun and the god of the sea. Zetlan handled the vocal lines and the emotional arc of Miranda’s Lament (Saariaho) well, but it was as the sprite Ariel that she really shone, both in the magnificent self-declaration (combining several of the speeches to Prospero) and the exquisite “Full fathom five...”, which was the penultimate section of the program. This was my first time hearing Thomas Richards, and I was very favorably impressed both by his stage presence and by his full-voiced, plangent singing. He sang both the Saariaho and the Purcell with great expressivity. My Musicologist Roommate, who accompanied me, wanted more ornamentation, but Richards made very fine use of vocal coloring. Saariaho’s setting of Caliban’s Dream I thought especially lovely. In a traditional production of Shakespeare’s play, the optimistic concluding ensemble (recording here) would seem strangely inopportune, but here, it seemed only fitting. The program will be given two more performances in this run, and could provide an interesting addition to the repertoire of small companies.

This review first appeared at Opera Obsession. It is reprinted with permission of the author.

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