Hugh M. Murphy

Lee Hoiby: The Tempest

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Shakespeare's plays have proven surprisingly resistant to successful adaptation to the operatic stage, in spite of many hundreds of attempts. Only Verdi's Macbeth, Otello, and Falstaff, Gounod's Roméo et Juliette, and Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream have secure places in the repertoire, with a few others, such as Thomas' Hamlet and Nicolai's The Merry Wives of Windsor, hovering around the periphery. The Tempest has probably been set more often than any other play, and it has held special attraction for modern composers; a sampling includes Frank Martin (1955), John Eaton (1985), Gavin Bryars (1993), Peter Westergaard (1994), and Thomas Adès (2004). Lee Hoiby's 1986 version has had a respectable performance history, with productions by the opera companies of Des Moines, Kansas City, Dallas, and Purchase College, whose performance is recorded here. Hoiby, a student of Menotti's, has a similar sensibility in terms of melody and harmony, but more of a conventional feeling for operatic structure. The Tempest has the sound of a modern grand opera, with cinematic sweep and color. Hoiby is not afraid of melody and traditional tonality, although his harmonic vocabulary is not limited to it. His music is lushly lyrical and has far more character and compositional variety and inventiveness than is common in most modern American operas that use this kind of conservative tonal language. Hoiby writes gratefully for the voice and the chorus, and his orchestration is fresh and imaginative. He is at his best in his depiction of the "magical" elements, and in the moments of grandeur, but the sections featuring the comic characters run on too long, and his attempts at humor are musically thin and fail to convince. The finale is splendidly cathartic and satisfying. The students at Purchase College, led by Hugh Murphy, deliver a first-rate performance, fully up to the challenging writing, and there are no weak links among the singers. Molly Davey as Ariel and Robert Balonek as Prospero stand out as particularly strong. The sound is mostly clear and clean, but the percussion is occasionally distractingly loud. Hoiby's version of The Tempest should be of interest to fans of new American opera.

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