Sibelius’ ‘Tempest’ Casts Its Spell In Dramatic Setting

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Sibelius’ 1926 incidental music for Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’ was turned into a fully staged production by Carlos Kalmar and the Oregon Symphony, with theatrical direction by Mary Birnbaum. (Photos by Joe Cantrell)

PORTLAND – The Oregon Symphony deserves extra credit for its fully staged production of Sibelius’ The Tempest (Nov. 23). Requiring five solo singers, six actors, a chorus, and a full-sized orchestra, Sibelius’ work augments The Tempest of Shakespeare with much more than incidental music, and getting it all to fit together seamlessly is no mean feat. If these challenges weren’t enough, the performance I heard at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall also overcame a late personnel change for Prospero, the most important character in the play, to create an evening that was magical.

Composer Jean Sibelius, c. 1923. (Wiki Commons)

Commissioned by the Royal Theatre of Copenhagen and Danish publisher Wilhelm Hansen, Sibelius wrote about 70 minutes of music in 35 segments. While some passages, like the ones for the spirit-being Ariel, fly by in less than a minute, others are not all that much longer, and only four last more than three minutes. Yet whether we hear a march, fanfare, waltz, folk tune, or lullaby, Sibelius’ music always enhances the characters and the situations while pushing the narrative forward.

Prospero has been deposed as the Duke of Milan. Cast out to die, he finds a new life on a desert island with his daughter Miranda. Years later, having taught himself the art of magic, Prospero sees a ship bearing the relatives who wrongfully took away his dukedom, and he uses his powers to summon a tempest that causes the ship to wreck upon the shore. The events that follow involve love, attempted murder, revenge, and forgiveness.

With stage directions by Mary Birnbaum, who successfully collaborated with the Oregon Symphony to present Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle in 2016, the singers and actors made full use of the extended stage, deftly moving across platforms. Except during the Overture, when the actors braced themselves with shields against the wind and waves, their movements didn’t distract from the music.

Miranda (Emily Ota) comes under the magic spell of her father, Prospero (Tyrone Wilson).

Tyrone Wilson, replacing an ailing Erick Avari with just 40 hours’ notice, was a mesmerizing Prospero. His magician’s wand aptly suggested the conductor’s baton that Carlos Kalmar used. Among the other non-singing roles, Emily Ota’s spunky Miranda matched perfectly with Philip Stoddard’s Ferdinand. Armando Durán’s faithful Gonzalo countered the Machiavellian Antonia of Rachel Crowl and the easily persuaded Sebastian of Amara James Aja. Kalmar recited his lines as the Boatswain with distinction. Wilson, Ota, Crowl, and Durán have ties to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Shipwrecked Ferdinand (Philip Stoddard) is drawn to Prospero’s island by the sprite Ariel (Kelsey Lauritano).

Kelsey Lauritano effortlessly darted about as Ariel, the airy spirit who must obey Prospero’s commands. Her warm mezzo-soprano charmed with its rich tone and luster as she sang “Full Fathom Five,” “Where the Bee Sucks,” and three other songs. Tobias Greenhalgh howled marvelously as Caliban. Benjamin Taylor’s Stefano and Andrew Stenson’s Trinculo added extra helpings of humor. Antonia Tamer’s lovely soprano graced the hall with Juno’s song of blessing for the young lovers. All songs were sung in Finnish, but without the aid of projected titles most of us in the audience were a bit lost.

Without understanding how or why, Caliban (Tobias Greenhalgh), Stefano (Benjamin Taylor), and Trinculo (Andrew Stenson) are pulled into Prospero’s grand scheme, one of several episodes set by Sibelius.

Tamer did double duty, taking over the role of Alonso from Wilson, who had that assignment before undertaking Prospero. So in this production, Tamer was addressed as the Queen of Naples instead of the King.

The Portland State University Chamber Choir, prepared by Ethan Sperry, fashioned a gentle breeze of sound for two brief numbers. The flash of lightning and the slightly dusky fog were expertly designed by Anshuman Bhatia. Modern and sometimes fanciful costumes by Sara Jean Tosetti allowed for ease of movement.

Sibelius’ The Tempest is moving and memorable. It also proved to be one of his last compositions before the long silence at the end of his life.