Thomas Adès’ The Tempest (2004) is one of the most highly acclaimed – and most produced – operas of the early part of this century. Commissioned by the Royal Opera House, London, with a libretto by Meredith Oakes, Mr Adès has reduced Shakespeare’s play into three concise acts, but maintaining the significant characters and clarifying the drama. Just as in Verdi’s Shakespeare-inspired operas Otello and Falstaff, Oakes’s libretto is “Shakespeare-ish”, in more-or-less rhyming couplets. “Full fathom five thy father lies” becomes “Five fathoms deep/Your father lies”, thus rendering the text more directly and more easily singable.

The Tempest is in many ways an old-fashioned grand opera, with musical structures that are easily identifiable (arias, duets, choruses) and music that, although sometimes dissonant, is often lyrical, rather than the endless stretches of arioso so often found in contemporary operas. The characters are delineated with specific musical styles and motifs: for example, Prospero’s music is powerful and angry; the spirit Ariel has otherworldly music at the utmost extreme high range of a coloratura soprano; the young lovers Ferdinand and Miranda have music of tender lyricism; and the counselor Gonzalo, who saved Prospero and Miranda at the time of their banishment from Naples, has music of great nobility. Adès also uses the orchestra to brilliant effect. The opening prelude conjures up the great storm that causes the people of Naples to be cast up onto Prospero’s island, setting the drama in motion. At other times, the magical elements of the play are illustrated by arresting orchestral music.

The Met’s cast and production are top-notch. The composer himself conducts an effectively dramatic, taut and, presumably, authoritative performance. Baritone Simon Keenlyside, the original Covent Garden Prospero, recreates the role here in strong and impassioned voice, clad in rags of a military uniform and heavy body tattoos. Tenor Toby Spence, the original Ferdinand, returns here as Prospero’s brother, the usurper Antonio – the one almost entirely unsympathetic character in the opera. Coloratura Audrey Luna sings Ariel’s impossibly difficult music with confidence and abandon, although many of her words are unintelligible due to the very high tessitura of much of the music. Ms Luna has the added burden of being required to sing in a variety of unusual positions, including being carried on her stomach. Her curtain-call ovation was well-deserved. Alek Shrader and Isabel Leonard are the attractive young lovers. Veteran tenor Alan Oke plays Caliban not as a monster, but as a misunderstood and abused inhabitant of the island invaded and commandeered by Prospero. William Burden is effective in conveying grief over the supposed loss of his son Ferdinand. Kevin Burdette and Iestyn Davies provide comic relief as the drunken sailors. The Met Chorus are well-trained in their role as the people of Naples.

Robert Lepage, who had previously staged Berlioz’s La Damnation de Faust and Wagner’s Ring, uses as his metaphor for The Tempest an 18th-century opera house, each act from a different perspective: from the stage looking toward the auditorium; from the auditorium looking at the stage; and a cross-section of the theatre. Characters come and go via the prompter’s box and hidden places from under the “stage”; Ariel never sets foot on the stage, but always appears from above, hanging on a chandelier, on a lighting bridge, climbing up a stage curtain; stagey effects, such as an undulating fabric sheet with lighting effects, create the turbulent ocean. Video projections combine with antique theatrical elements to create convincing stage pictures. There is already strong evidence that The Tempest will endure in the operatic repertoire, and the Met’s fine production is a good example why. It can be recommended without hesitation.