A Tempest in the Schnitz

With a vivid storm of Shakespeare's words and Sibelius's music, The Oregon Symphony pairs two artists in their twilights for a last hurrah


PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOE CANTRELL
STORY BY BOB HICKS


It was a storm for the ages Saturday night in the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall as the musicians of the Oregon Symphony swept into the swirling seas of The Tempest, the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius’s vivid 1925/26 score for William Shakespeare’s great late romance about an island, a magician, a belly full of betrayals, an awakening of young love, and a resolution of forgiveness. Ah, but first, the storm: blowing, whistling, reeling, slipping and sliding in a chaotic cascade of rhythms and notes – an unsettling of sound that whirls and clatters and destroys and yet also somehow sets the scene for fresh wonders and reawakened hope.

As the orchestra urges the action forward, Caliban (Tobias Greenhalgh), seeing freedom if he switches allegiance from Prospero, cavorts with his new hopes, the drunken butler Stephano (Benjamin Taylor, middle) and jester Trinculo (Andrew Stenson). It’s not Caliban’s wisest decision.

The Tempest marks the return of the enormously creative stage director Mary Birnbaum, who made her mark here three years ago with a seductive and hypnotic production for the symphony of Bartok’s opera Bluebeard’s Castle, with dazzling sets by glass master Dale Chihuly: Bruce Browne, reviewing for ArtsWatch, called it “a danse macabre of butchery, love, sex, unbridled by societal decencies.” The Tempest (like Bluebeard’s Castle, part of the orchestra’s SoundSights series of cross-discipline shows) is a very different project, by its nature not as integrated as the opera. It’s not nearly so much of a visual spectacle, and more of a rough and stormy tumbling-together of music and theater. Unlike more smoothly meshed dance and opera adaptations of Shakespeare, its edges show – and that jaggedness sparks much of the production’s potent energy. The music itself takes up roughly an hour, performing various functions: sometimes stating themes, sometimes breaking up the action, sometimes underscoring what the actors are doing. It can be small, light, allusive. It can be grand and dominating, with the underpinning voices of the large Portland State University Chamber Choir. Now and again it breaks into gorgeous operatic lines. Sometimes the actors take the full focus (in his column Shakeseare and symphony meet, as if by magic, ArtsWatch theater editor Marty Hughley talks insightfully with the production’s Prospero, Tyrone Wilson, and its Gonzalo, Armando Durán). Sometimes the orchestra takes control of the wheel, commandeering it in 35 movements of brief bursts: In a pre-show talk, the symphony’s music director and conductor, Carlos Kalmar, called them “incredibly short. Really astonishingly short.”

The island sprite Ariel (Kelsey Lauritano) puts a spell on the shipwrecked swain Ferdinand (Philip Stoddard). “She is the one who sings the most,” conductor Carlos Kalmar told interviewer Robert McBride about the mezzo Lauritano in Saturday’s pre-show talk. “She didn’t learn it in English. She learned it in the original,” which is Danish. Stage director Mary Birnbaum, Kalmar added, “said, ‘well, let her sing in the original language, because actually Ariel is not a human, so if the nonhuman doesn’t sing in English, that’s fine.'” And so it was.

So Sibelius’s version of The Tempest is in many ways broken up, a skillful shattering of the forward line. Yet it’s also something of a culmination, or a summing-up, not just for the composer but for the playwright as well. Shakespeare wrote The Tempest probably in 1610 and 1611, famously as perhaps the greatest of his late cycle of romances, in which the sword of tragedy meets the shield of comedy and resolves into acceptance and grace. Shakespeare died shortly after, in 1616, and it seems no accident that Prospero makes his own exit declaring that “every third thought shall be my grave.” After finishing The Tempest, which followed his monumental Seventh Symphony, Sibelius lived for more than 30 years. But astonishingly, except for his tone poem Tapiola, which also came in 1926, he published no more major works. For the most part, he simply dropped out. What he did write, he burned – after which, his wife commented, he seemed a happier man. Famous last sounds, famous last words.

Actor Tyrone Wilson commands the role of the magician Prospero, combining majestic tone and precise articulation with a deep dive into the meanings of the man and a dancer’s lightness of movement around the stage. Wilson, who has played Sebastian and Caliban in previous productions of “The Tempest” at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, was originally cast in the smaller role of Alonso but took over the lead days before opening when another actor dropped out. He performed on book with his script on a music stand but glanced at it only now and again, and used the stand as a prop as he swept grandly about the stage.

Theatrically, Tyrone Wilson’s Prospero and Kelsey Lauritano’s magical sprite Ariel are the twin peaks of this production, breathing life and individuality into iconic roles. As befits a magician, Wilson is both deeply human and larger than life, a compelling presence not only for the rolling timbre and linguistic precision of his voice but also for his surprising lightness of foot and an antic lurking geniality that buoys Prospero’s serious nature. Lauritano is a revelation both musically and theatrically, a light and dancerly presence whose singing voice is dusky and rounded, a reminder that, spirit or no, Ariel is no mere flitting thing but a creature of strength and power to be reckoned with. They are well supported by Emily Ota and Philip Stoddard as the young lovers Miranda and Ferdinand, Tobias Greenhalgh as the slave creature Caliban, and others. Soprano Antonia Tamer takes full advantage of one of those spotlight moments, singing from the balcony as Juno, the goddess of marriage (this is, after all, a romance), and doubles as Alonso, Naples’ king.

Conductor Carlos Kalmar (left) jokes with interviewer Robert McBride in Saturday’s pre-show talk. When Sibelius’s score was ready to be premiered, Kalmar said, “It was the entire play … with music. Which makes that probably three and a half or four hours of show. So you’re going to be here for a while. Cancel your dinner plans.” In fact, with stage director Mary Birnbaum’s trims to the script, the symphony’s version clocks in at about two hours, fifteen minutes, including intermission.

What we get here isn’t quite the full play, with its many nuances, and not quite a symphonic suite, but something more than incidental music. It’s a hybrid, with its own considerable strengths: things are lost, and other things are gained. The production doesn’t really address the colonialism that underpins the action and helps give The Tempest such a crucial contemporary feel: In its tale of a voyage to an undiscovered place and conquering of a rich existing culture that the conquerors dismiss as savage (Caliban really is the island’s rightful heir, and yet becomes a slave) The Tempest seems almost an ur-American play. Yet no Shakespearean production fills all the corners – that’s why we keep watching, over and over again – and the combination of words, action, and music creates its own collusion of possibilities: an enchanted island where music seems to come from nowhere and everywhere, where people are granted first loves and second chances, where regret gives way to reconciliation, where somehow anything seems possible. All of that, and the orchestra’s in top form. Blow, winds, blow. Crack the merely expected. Crack it again.

March of the masks, music of the storm. With the orchestra taking up most of the stage, set and lighting designer Anshuman Bhatia had a small space to work with but used it creatively. The stage was pushed forward as far as it would go, almost in touching distance of the first row of seats, and Bhatia created sets of triple risers left and right with a swath of bare stage between. Performers also popped up from inside the orchestra, and even from the rear balcony where the large and smartly focused Portland State University Chamber Choir stood for much of the show.
O strange new world: Tyrone Wilson, as Prospero, with Emily Ota as his daughter Miranda, who until Ferdinand is shipwrecked has never set eyes on a man other than her father. With no way to compare him to others, she believes Ferdinand to be a paragon of his gender, and she’s not wrong.
To prove his worthiness of Miranda, Ferdinand (Philip Stoddard) undergoes a series of tests, which include hauling an extraordinary amount of firewood. Spurred by love, he’s true to the task.
As Ariel, the island spirit who seeks her freedom, Kelsey Lauritano flits in and out of the action, often popping up in the midst of the orchestra and creating a subtle link between the music and the play by brandishing a flute, which she uses as something like a magic talisman.
In a further seaming of music and play, Tyrone Wilson’s Prospero and conductor Carlos Kalmar briefly share the staff of authority: Who has the power? Kalmar also breaks briefly from the podium near the end to deliver a few lines as the Boatswain, who reports that, in spite of all, the wrecked ship is shipshape and ready to sail again, transporting the players to the mainland.
Sleep … sleep. Against a deep blue stillness, Prospero casts his spells. Lighting is by Anshuman Bhatia and associate lighting designer Justin Dunlap.

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OREGON SYMPHONY’S THE TEMPEST

  • The symphony’s production opened Saturday evening in the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall in downtown performance and repeated in a Sunday matinee. Final performance will be 7:30 p.m. Monday, Nov. Ticket information here.

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