How do you solve the problem of an opera based on Shakespeare? You can carefully trim the original play to fit musical time, as Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears did with A Midsummer Night’s Dream and as John Adams and his collaborators did with Antony and Cleopatra. You can set the opera in translation, as Verdi did several times. You can set an English adaptation of the original, as Thomas Adès and Meredith Oakes did with The Tempest. Or you can update and adapt the story, as composer Allen Shearer and librettist Claudia Stevens have done with their new opera, Prospero’s Island, which was presented at Herbst Theatre on Saturday, March 25.
In their vision, the story is set in modern times in the Malvinas, also known as the Falkland Islands. Prospero, rather than being a magician and the dethroned Duke of Milan, is an escaped war criminal from an evil regime, wanted for crimes against humanity. He has shielded his daughter Mandy (Miranda in The Tempest) from the truth; he has enslaved Ariel and Caliban, mysterious creatures who work for him. A plane carrying special agents pursuing Prospero crashes, and Mandy falls in love with the pilot, Andy (Ferdinand). Eventually, Mandy and Andy are married by one of the special agents, Prospero is arrested, and we learn that Ariel and Caliban are chimeras, half human and half animal, and resulted from Prospero’s criminal experiments.
The resulting libretto, in modern English, is prosaic compared to Shakespeare’s magnificent original. The characters talk and talk and talk, and nearly all of the music they’re given emerges at a uniformly moderate pace, within a restricted musical range, and with little obvious tempo variation. On one hand, the singers have the space to project the text with great clarity; on the other hand, the sameness soon grows dull, and the opera feels as though it’s much longer than its running time.
Moreover, the creators have largely chosen to avoid traditional operatic forms. They give the principal characters little in the way of arias or duets. Mandy and Andy sing a short, tender duet when they marry; Ariel gets a tiny moment or two of vocal display; two special agents, Steffi and Trish, who correspond to the comic characters Stephano and Trinculo, get a little drinking song and a few moments of comic relief. A couple of Mozart quotations and some pastiches of popular 20th-century styles liven up the music but also throw into relief the lack of variety in the vocal lines.
The big exception to this, showing Shearer and Stevens at their best, is their imaginative handling of the eight-singer chorus of penguins. Yes, you read that right: There’s a tiny chorus of singers from the San Francisco Girls Chorus, costumed adorably as penguins, waddling about the stage, flapping their tiny wings, and echoing text sung by the major characters, which has the effect of mocking them. Three cheers for Ella Cody, Sadie Dobbs, Sofia Jun (who also played the violin, briefly, on Prospero’s command), Addison Li, Zara Nelson, Carissa Satuito, Anna Tanner, and Grace Zhao. If the late Harrison Birtwistle’s Yan Tan Tethera is ever staged locally, perhaps they can be among the chorus of sheep.
Shearer’s orchestration, for a chamber orchestra of just 12 instruments, was a musical highlight. He beautifully invoked daybreak and dusk at the start and toward the end of Prospero’s Island; interludes between scenes were lovely and idiomatically written. Solos wove sinuously around vocal lines, providing much of the musical color in the opera. Nathaniel Berman of Ninth Planet, one of the organizations collaborating on Prospero’s Island, conducted well, balancing the voices and orchestra ideally.
The lack of big vocal numbers was particularly a shame given the excellence of the cast. Two-time Merola Fellow Andrew Dwan sang Prospero with a sonorous baritone, and Amy Foote’s light, sweet soprano was ideal for the 16-year-old Mandy, though she could have used more volume and weight at the climax of the opera. (But why give a young woman who has never met a man other than her father a line like “I cannot imagine a better or more wonderful man”?)
When you’ve got the marvelous coloratura soprano Shawnette Sulker in your cast, it’s practically criminal not to give her a show-off aria or two, yet she had only brief moments of vocal flight. Still, she was perfectly cast as Ariel. Baritone Bradley Kynard sang firmly and with great character as Caliban, who is both enraged and somewhat disgusting. Tenor Sergio Gonzalez’s Andy matched Foote’s sweetness note for note; the pair were charmingly sincere. Julia Hathaway and Angela Jarosz were raucous and down-to-earth as Steffi and Trish. Michael Mendelsohn rounded out the cast as Captain Al, commander of the special forces pursuing Prospero.
Jeremy Knight’s projections and director Philip Lowery’s stage designs worked well together, with the projections acting as scenic backdrops. Lowery’s direction gave each character an individual movement vocabulary. Joy Graham-Korst’s costumes for Caliban, Ariel, and the chorus were particularly good.