The Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY; March 27, 2015

Jerry Hochman

Jennifer Zetlan and Thomas Richards (seated); Peiju Chien-Pott and Abdiel Jacobsen in Gotham Chamber Opera's The Tempest Songbook.  Photo Julieta Cervantes

Jennifer Zetlan and Thomas Richards (seated); Peiju Chien-Pott and Abdiel Jacobsen in rehearsal for Gotham Chamber Opera’s The Tempest Songbook.
Photo Julieta Cervantes

The Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium is situated in the Egyptian Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, with its entry doors opposite imposing twin seated statues, dating from 1390-1352 BC, of the Egyptian goddess Sakhmet, who represented the forces if violence, disaster, and illness, and whose character is described as fierce and destructive. With her fixed eyes staring forward as if able to penetrate the walls of the auditorium and gaze directly onto the stage, Sakhmet must have transferred some of her power to the staging of the tempest within, because Gotham Chamber Opera’s opening night world premiere performance of The Tempest Songbook was a mighty spectacle that intimately captured the wrath, and ultimately the forgiveness, of the gods – or at least their designated sorcerer.

This final production in the Chamber Opera’s season proved to be far more than the description “chamber opera” would connote – at least to one not fully versed in opera, chamber or otherwise. It featured a minimal but extraordinary set, a live ensemble of eight musicians playing both extant and period (recorder, archlute, harpsichord) instruments, and four superb dancers from the Martha Graham Dance Company, which co-produced the piece. The result, directed and choreographed by Luca Veggetti, is at once an inventive imagining of Shakespeare’s magical story, a formidable fusion of poetry, vocal and instrumental music and dance, and a memorable theatrical event.

The production consists of a felicitous coupling of The Tempest Songbook, a series of songs for soprano, baritone, and period music ensemble created in 2004 by contemporary composer Kaija Saariaho, with incidental music for an early 18th century production of Shakespeare’s play attributed to Baroque composer Henry Purcell. The thirteen songs of varying length effectively alternate between the contemporary and the baroque, and the contrast is aurally invigorating. Following the Purcell overture, each song embodies a thematic development in, or an emotional component of, The Tempest. And although Veggetti, in a program note, cautions against assigning narrative content to the songs, the story is told clearly, succinctly, and emphatically.

The stage is set with the musicians seated in a discrete area stage right. A large globe- shaped sphere hangs from the ceiling, downstage left. A non-descript off-white/grey color, with raised ‘continents’, it is illuminated from overhead and behind such that it casts a ring of light onto the floor below. Offstage screens at the front corners of the house provide a simultaneous visual display of the songs’ words.

The auditorium stage is small, and having the musicians occupy a significant portion of it, and the globe, which look to be approximately five feet in diameter, occupy another, limits the space available for the performers. But the staging is so inventive, with the globe changing both position and content as the piece progresses, that there’s ample room. And even though, between the ensemble, the screens, the globe, the singers and the dancers, a viewer’s eyes must often ingest a multitude of visual stimuli at once, it all somehow works. The music, singing, dancing, and scenic design all complement and enhance each other.

I have not previously seen Veggetti’s work, but based on The Tempest Songbook, that’s my loss. His use of space and movement is remarkable. The four dancers, Peiju Chien-Pott, Ying Xin, Abdiel Jacobsen, and Lloyd Mayor, are visualized characters and shadows of characters, as well as reflections of emotions that boil throughout the piece. In contrast to the relatively static positioning of the singers and musicians, whose movement quality is conveyed through the force of the poetry they sing and the music they play, and the spectacularly magical visual imagery provided by the globe, they provide the piece’s dramatic flow. This dramatic flow is captured in movement that is imbued with a sense of timelessness, a curious coupling of lyricism with weight. Veggetti’s choreography here can’t be pinpointed to a particular source – it’s not Graham or Cunningham or Taylor, and it’s not ballet in a contemporary framework: as I was watching it evolve, I thought of a modern dance form of Antony Tudor. Its power is psychological as well as physical, and comes from within.

The roles of the dancers (and singers), to the extent they have defined roles, is not always clear. At least part of the time, Jacobsen is the visual personification of Caliban, conveying an appropriate combination of primitive nobility to his movement quality. Chien-Pott, whose innate power emanates from every pore and gesture, may be Ariel. Xin and Mayor, who are both clad in black (including a mesh-like face mask), appear to be shadows of other characters, or a sort of chorus. But whether they are intended to represent visualizations of specific characters, and who these characters might be, doesn’t really matter. They are creatures of the earth and the imagination who search or dream through deliberate but inevitable penetration of the space around them like lava that flows after Prospero’s conjured volcano erupts.

Jennifer Zetlan (soprano), who may be seen to represent Miranda, and Thomas Richards (bass-baritone), who would be Prospero, conveyed the songs’ poetry and operatic style vividly and were well-received. While much of the time the singers were relatively independent of the dancers (who circled them, or performed in discrete areas at some distance from them), I particularly appreciated those moments when the singers and dancers physically overlapped within the same stage space (including one sequence where Jacobson lifted and carried Zetlan), which happened with increasing frequency as the piece progressed toward its ultimately peaceful and benevolent conclusion.

And then there’s that globe. It functions as a multimedia and multi-purpose stage set. It spins like a planet subjected to violent and colorful storms that are projected onto it like colorful thunderbolts emanating from some omnipotent and overwhelming exterior force. Like Neptune. Or Sakhmet. Then it transforms into a disc or screen onto which hazy, dreamy, colorized images of the action taking place on stage are projected (probably pre-recorded, but so well matched to the stage action that it looks as if it’s a projection of isolated performance images in real time).

But the video projection is more than just an altered form of the stage action – it includes flat, disembodied faces that suddenly morph into animated drawings of some characters, as well as human faces that don’t appear to correspond to any of the stage characters. These images are sometimes little more than barely recognizable swirling clouds of color. And toward the end of the piece, the globe is transformed into an oversized rubber ball/planet Earth that hangs from a string and moves forward and back as it’s pushed and played with. The interplay between the expressions projected on the globe and the music (conducted by Gotham Chamber Opera’s Artistic Director Neal Goren) and the action on stage is seamless. Kudos to Jean-Baptiste Barriere for video creation, and to Clifton Taylor’s for scenic and lighting design.

I have only one criticism of The Tempest Songbook. At approximately an hour in length, it ended much too quickly.