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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.