New opera Caliban banal and wearisome

Caliban was one of three world premieres at the 2017 Opera Forward
Festival in Amsterdam. While only a few new operas will be masterpieces, some,
such as this one, should not be inflicted on the public. Caliban
retells Shakespeare’s The Tempest while focusing on its title
character, the deformed witch’s son from whom Prospero, the deposed Duke
of Milan, steals the island of his exile. When Prospero learns that his
treacherous brother is passing by on a ship, he uses sorcery to create a
sea-storm to strand its passengers. The Tempest’s shipwrecked
party is reduced to the servants Stephano and Trinculo, with whom Caliban plans
a failed coup against Prospero, and Ferdinand, Prince of Naples, who eventually
marries Prospero’s daughter, Miranda.

Librettist Peter te Nuyl applies a post-colonialist reading to the plot,
translating Shakespeare into modern speech. “The red plague rid
you” becomes “The red plague will rot you”. When Prospero
catches Caliban and Miranda being intimate, he ends his abusive attempts to
educate and civilize the native islander. From then on it’s abuse without
edification. In the end Caliban rebels and overthrows his master. He abandons
his primitive syntax (“Caliban angry”) and appropriates
Prospero’s speech about life being “such stuff as dreams are made
on”, finally learning the language of Shakespeare, just as Prospero
wanted. This is about as much Shakespeare as the opera contains, apart from
Miranda stealing some of Lady Macbeth’s lines, disclosing her own
political ambitions. Updating Shakespeare is all very well, but Te Nuyl’s
lines are often banal and at times perplexing. “Sneer ’em, jeer
’em. Thought is free”, the drunkard Stephano sings in his Mockney
accent, words that suggest alcohol pickles your prepositions as well as your
liver. Colonization dispossesses and enslaves, and gives birth to monsters in
its own image – a perfectly valid theory that has to make do with
the humorless libretto and enervating music.

Eggert’s palette is promising, tinged darkish by low-pitched
instruments such as the bass flute and bass clarinet. An accordion references
Eastern European strains and there are Schoenberg-like violin solos. But these
wisps of melody rise from a bed of sludgy chords or hover above clumps of notes
on a loop. The singers senselessly reiterate phrases in ever-widening note
intervals or hiccup compulsively in staccato. The entire score is mired in
stagnant repetition. There are interesting passages, such as mariachi echoes by
trumpet and trombone to a salsa beat on the bongo drums. Ferdinand sings a
romantic aria in English Renaissance style, ironically accompanied by wheezy
chords, but mindlessness soon returns. Miranda responds with a vapid pop number
called “I don’t know anyone of my sex”, with illustrative
crotch grabbing. As well versed as they are in bringing new music to life, the
Asko|Schönberg musicians, alertly led by Steven Sloane, could not make the
work intriguing.

Lotte de Beer’s low-cost staging cleverly uses all the corners of the
stage, and suited both venue and chamber opera format. Characters move
dynamically, wheeling in the flight cases and scaffolding that make up the set.
They change costumes onstage, picking items from large garment racks. Prospero
creates his tempest with rows of fans, dry ice and a strobe light. Another
asset of the production was the talented cast. Alexander Oliver was splendidly
sinister as Prospero, a spoken role, in Fair Isle sweater and tie (not geek
chic, but retired headmaster with good china and a mean streak). De Beer
underscores his overbearing nature by magnifying his smirk on a wall using live

Soprano Alexandra Flood and tenor Timothy Fallon shared six roles between
them, playing Prospero’s minions as well as, respectively,
Miranda/Trinculo and Ferdinand/Stephano. Flood has a lovely, full-toned voice,
which she handled with facility. Fallon sang spiritedly and, when the music
allowed for it, with pleasing legato. Michael Wilmering was a characterful
Caliban, projecting rude instinct and innocence in equal measure. The music
required him to repeatedly push up his silky baritone into falsetto. To his
great credit, Wilmering sang beautifully to the end. Regrettably, these quality
voices were amplified. Was it impossible to amplify only the spoken dialogue?
Was it because the orchestration included a synthesizer imitating a
bad-tempered organ? Or was it because Operafront, the production company,
targets new opera audiences, who can’t digest unamplified voices?
Whatever the reason, the electronically “enhanced” singing in a
small venue such as the Compagnietheater was loud and bothersome. Putting on
new operas is one of the admirable aims of the Opera Forward Festival. Alas,
this one deserves to sink without a trace.

Jenny Camilleri

Cast and production information:

Caliban: Michael Wilmering; Miranda/Trinculo: Alexandra Flood;
Stephano/Ferdinand: Timothy Fallon; Prospero: Alexander Oliver. Director: Lotte
de Beer; Set and Costume Design: Clement & Sanôu; Lighting Design:
Maarten Warmerdam. Composer: Moritz Eggert; Libretto: Peter te Nuyl; Conductor:
Steven Sloane. Asko|Schönberg. Seen at the Compagnietheater, Amsterdam,
Thursday, 30th March 2017.

image_description=Scene from Caliban
product_title=New opera Caliban banal and wearisome
product_by=A review by Jenny Camilleri
product_id=Above: Scene from Caliban