Perhaps sensing the limitations of the work, Mr. Lepage has fitted it with a Big Idea. After doing a Ring that was stubbornly anti-concept, the director has done a Tempest that is only concept. It wasn’t a problem, in theory, to situate The Tempest at La Scala. After all, the island in the play and opera ends up being a kind of colony of Milan, somewhere that is both Milan and not, a place where its citizens go to be subtly but significantly different than themselves. One of the city’s great theaters is a natural parallel.
Yet Mr. Lepage makes the classic concept-production blunder: the action feels like it could just as easily be taking place anywhere and just happens to be on this particular set. I wish, in a way, that he had gone further, and done something closer to Mary Zimmerman’s flawed yet intriguing 2009 Met production of Bellini’s La Sonnambula, which was set among a company of singers putting on La Sonnambula. If you think The Tempest is about theater, make it about theater. If you think Prospero is a director, make him a director. Instead Mr. Lepage has given us a standard production of The Tempest, but has set it, rather awkwardly and unattractively, inside La Scala.
Near the end of the show, when a ship returns to bring everyone back to Italy, sailors come out and begin pulling at the backstage ropes, which we suddenly realize are analogues of the ropes of the ship. The metaphorical and “real” worlds mingle movingly. But such moments occur all too rarely. Given a far more problematic work than Wagner’s Ring, Mr. Lepage has responded with an approach that looks utterly different but is really just more of the same: a flat, largely emotion-free production that sometimes impresses but never moves.