All posts by kruekutt

Grateful for my beloved wife, son, daughter-in-law, grandchildren and siblings. Also a lover of theology, music, history, philosophy, classic novels, science fiction, fantasy and Looney Tunes.

Giancarlo Erra’s Departure Tapes

That which passes, passes like clouds.

— aphorism/song title/album title, Robert Fripp

This is music from a broken heart.

Abruptly faced with his estranged father’s terminal illness, Nosound maestro Giancarlo Erra poured his reactions into brooding electronic improvisations, recorded (for the most part) in real time in the studio. The result is his second solo album, Departure Tapes. Shorn of the classical elements of 2019’s Ends, it’s both raw and eerily majestic — an extended sonic contemplation of mortal life’s limits and the human struggle to accept them.

The opening “Dawn Tape” lays out Erra’s improvisational process — not far removed from Robert Fripp’s Soundscapes or Floating Points’ recent Promises. A mournful lo-fi piano loop (complete with the noise of the recorder switching on) gently creaks into motion. As it repeats over the course of six minutes, Erra stirs in a static mid-range drone, a slow synth line and a recessed bass riff, randomly generated rhythmic chords and a yearning treble melody. The elements accumulate, grind against each other, gradually dissipate like clouds in a troubled sky, with the drone outlasting even the piano loop. But that’s just the architecture: what you hear is the beginning of a new day, its beauty evident yet obscured for Erra by Philip Larkin’s “unresting death, a whole day nearer now.”

Every track on Departure Tapes opens out from its simple beginnings to something rich and deep, no matter its actual length. The tender harp of the miniature “Previous Tape” provides a lush bed for its heartfelt, hornlike melody over an airy, insistent electronic groove. “169th Tape” is a portrait of collisions and avoidances, as orchestral clusters (treated with random, noisy decay) sweep across the soundfield, holding on against midrange chords and an irregular, descending bass line that threaten to overwhelm it. And “Unwound Tape” sounds like its title, a hypnotic, slow-motion crescendo that has the feel of something feared yet inescapable.

All this builds to the title track, sixteen minutes of heartfelt brilliance. Working off a long, wordless vocal loop, Erra explores his previous strategies, draping the haunting melody with chords and a bass line — then reboots for an extended, lyrical piano solo (featured at the start of the YouTube edit). Flowing from folk lyricism into free-form, dissonant splashes, Erra dances, halts, regains momentum to climb through thickening, pulsing string clouds. Which is when the vocal line returns, triumphantly soaring atop the static gloom. It’s a rhapsodic moment, evoking Mahler in its depiction of both the angst involved in confronting death and the catharsis of acceptance. Which beautifully sets up the closing “A Blues for My Father,” a yearning requiem of glacially shifting melodies and timbres, somber but nonetheless at peace.

It’s that sense of closure, of coming to terms with what awaits us all, that Erra powerfully, beautifully depicts with Departure Tapes. Working from his grief for his father, he’s given us a gift; whatever we believe awaits beyond this life, one day we will pass from this world, like the clouds he’s so vividly drawn on for these improvisational sketches. Coming to terms with that raw fact can enable us — as it would seem to have enabled Giancarlo Erra — to treasure what we have (as well as what we’ve had) all the more.

Departure Tapes is available on LP and CD/DVD from Burning Shed, or on digital download at Bandcamp. Give it a listen below:

— Rick Krueger

Rhiannon Giddens with Francesco Turrisi, “They’re Calling Me Home”

Rhiannon Giddens & Francesco Turrisi’s There Is No Other was one of my favorite albums of 2019. Reviewing it, I described it as

A sweep of traditions and times woven together . . . one of those albums that Duke Ellington might termed ‘beyond category,’ resonating with the core of our shared humanity.

Giddens and Turrisi’s breathtaking new effort They’re Calling Me Home does it again. Recorded in Ireland under lockdown conditions with limited guests, the duo spin shimmering sonic webs with viola, banjo, guitar, accordion and hand percussion, enlivening a brilliantly eclectic gamut of spirituals, folk songs, hymns, Baroque arias and striking originals.

And as always, Giddens’ incomparable voice compels your attention, tracing the commonalities of these variegated songs across the centuries — caressing Monteverdi’s “Si dolce e’l Tormento” and the Anglo-Appalachian “When I Was in My Prime,” testifying to a hope beyond reason on “I Shall Not Be Moved,” staring down mortality itself on a vehement, haunted version of “O Death:”

Separated from their extended families in North Carolina and Italy by the pandemic, Giddens and Turrisi have made, essentially, an album of laments; They’re Calling Me Home faces up to the spectres of separation (temporary and permanent) that continue to stalk our world. But strengthened by the confrontation, they — and we — come out the other side refreshed, able to rejoice in the life and love still there for us to find and cherish.

Buy They’re Calling Me Home at Nonesuch Records; listen to it below:

— Rick Krueger

Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders & the London Symphony Orchestra, “Promises”

WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD!!
Imagine if you will . . .

From silence, a seven note riff on piano, celeste and harpsichord, cycling over two repeated bass notes. Recorded so intimately you hear the piano’s damper pedals lift, as much a part of the cycle’s rhythm as the melodic tones.

About a minute and a half in, the cry of a saxophone. First responding to the keyboard cycles, then skirling continuously over them. Electric piano creeps in to fill the empty sonic crevices while the London Symphony’s strings pass above, dividing from a unison note into clustered washes. The blues are unmistakably evident from Pharaoh Sanders’ first note — and somehow the emotion he conveys is echoed in the ethereal, dissonant orchestral blanket.

The riff cycles, the sax and strings ebb; Sam Shepherd (aka Floating Points) steps forward with hesitant, mellow yet insistent synthesizers. Then, unexpectedly, Sanders vocalises — running scales, lip trilling, removing his horn from the equation and trusting us with his unadorned humanity, to gripping, gorgeous effect.

As he picks up the sax again, the mood and the eternal motif shift to match. Darker, thicker keys in a minor mode support grittier, more active improvisation and a stark synthesized squall by Shepherd, before subsiding to quiet counterpoint behind the unending riff.

Sanders leaps in once more — only to give way to a sustained, yearning solo cello solo that awakens the orchestra. The meditation that ensues is another moment of sheer beauty — gigantic, suspended unison lines that become a breathtaking mash-up of spiritual jazz and the English pastoral tradition, John Coltrane and Ralph Vaughan Williams locked in brotherly embrace.

The string chords pile up, mounting through consonance to dissonance — then collapse! In the ensuing silence, a quiet violin, answered by electric piano. Then, Sanders — this time so hushed, yet so gritty and breathy, over a fragile web of keyboard accents strung across the unstopping riff. A distant synth joins the dialog; Sanders cajoles it closer, helps it take more definite shape, then backs away, as Shepherd fires up free floating sequences across the stereo field and weaves a solo around them.

For the final time, Sanders breaks loose above the echoing, fading field of electronic sound, both conjuring up both the heady free jazz of his youth and the measured maturity of his long career into a memorable melodic volley. Shepherd returns to his subdued accents on synth, organ, electric piano; the riff patiently continues to cycle. Silence resumes its initial place in the piece, now dominant but not triumphant.

Until the riff stops! In its place, thick, ponderous organ chords that trail off into vibrato and echo. Total quiet; a slow-growing cloud of treated strings that burst into glittering fireworks, then subside into the final silence.

Fortunately, you don’t have to imagine this. Floating Points’ remarkable collaboration with Pharoah Sanders and the LSO is real. And moving. And my favorite album of the year to date. Listen to it below, then get it for yourself via Bandcamp.

— Rick Krueger

My Number 2 Album of the Year . . .

. . . comes from the outpouring of archival jazz releases I’ve been writing about lately. This, from my point of view, is the very best of that harvest: an astounding, life-affirming 1962 concert, buried in the archives of Ella Fitzgerald’s manager, completely forgotten until now, then released this fall as The Lost Berlin Tapes.

Back in West Berlin on the heels of two first-class live albums recorded there (1960’s Mack the Knife: Ella in Berlin and 1961’s Ella Returns to Berlin) plus a solid studio record based on classic swing and bop (1962’s Clap Hands, Here Comes Charlie!) Fitzgerald and her virtuosic “fellas” — Paul Smith on piano, Wilfred Middlebrooks on bass, Stan Levey on drums — are at their absolute peak, in tune with each other and with an extroverted, enthralled Sportpalast Arena audience.

Every single note of this concert radiates warmth and inner joy, even when Ella detours into torch songs like “Cry Me A River” and Billie Holiday’s “Good Morning Heartache.” And when she and the fellas swing on “Jersey Bounce,” jump on “Clap Hands, Here Comes Charlie,” dig deep into Ray Charles’ “Hallelujah, I Love Him So” (resulting in an immediate, complete encore!), they are unstoppable. And then she breaks into her trademark scat singing on “Mack the Knife,” playfully evoking Bobby Darin and Louis Armstrong’s versions, “forgetting” the words like she did for real two years before and making up her own, cruising to an utterly triumphant finish. Which she can’t help but top with the powerhouse down-tempo finale “Wee Baby Blues.”

I have had no finer feeling listening to music this year; I believe that whatever might ail your soul in these strange days, The Lost Berlin Tapes is mighty good medicine for it. Which is why you need to hear this, right now!

My #1 album? The polar opposite of this, but equally beautiful in its own way – The Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus’ extraordinary Songs of Yearning/Nocturnes. Get this limited edition double album (LP or CD) from Occultation Recordings on Bandcamp, before the first pressing is completely gone!

On the Hunt for Classic Jazz: A Conversation with Zev Feldman

“There’s some very special moments when you’re hearing something privileged, and that’s one of the best parts of this job, hearing things for the first time.  An exclusive, if you will! We realized right then and there, ‘there is definitely music here that should be worth releasing!'” Speaking with Resonance Records co-president and “jazz detective” Zev Feldman over the phone, the joy and passion he brings to his calling — a worldwide hunt for unreleased archival recordings by titans of the genre — is almost palpable.

The focus of this conversation? One of Feldman’s latest efforts — Bill Evans Live at Ronnie Scott’s, out on LP on November 27 and CD December 4 (and recently reviewed in this space). As he sat in legendary drummer Jack DeJohnette’s home studio back in 2018, hearing the multitrack recordings of Evans, bassist Eddie Gomez and DeJohnette at the iconic London club during July 1968, his reaction was, first and foremost, that of a lifelong lover of the music.

“There’s so much beauty, lessons that I’ve learned from Bill.  He really helped me learn about the beauty and sometimes subtlety and just the way the chords and different things can come out. For a piano trio, with three guys, they have so much to say, and so much to express in the way that they communicate . . . Just these guys having a conversation up there – it’s amazing.  Different chemistry, different dudes; this is something that’s definitely got some hard hitting, some nice rough edges around here in a good way.”

Inspired by the Ronnie Scott’s tapes, Feldman set out to build a package that could not only stand with Resonance’s other Evans releases (including Some Other Time and Another Time by the same, rarely-recorded trio), but would fulfill “a responsibility, in taking the opportunity to make things as great as they can be.” Beyond the details of unearthing this recording, the album booklet is packed to the gills. Reflections from Gomez and DeJohnette (the latter in conversation with pianist Chick Corea) on their time together in Evans’ trio. A view of Evans’ London residency from the audience by British jazz writer Brian Priestley, who was there and raved about it . A unique illustration by brilliant commercial artist David Stone Martin, another of Feldman’s passions. And then there’s — Chevy Chase?

“I’m not sure the mainstream public is aware of this, or even most of Bill’s fans are aware of this, but Bill and Chevy were very good friends.  Chevy used to drive him home sometimes after gigs; they kept in touch over the years; Bill even had two kittens which he gave to Chevy, which he had their whole entire lives.  And Chevy is also a musician in his own right; some people may not be aware, but he’s also been a drummer and a pianist.” In other words, Chase brings to this release what Feldman and all the other contributors do: a long-standing delight in Evans’ music, filtered through his own unique perspective.

Continue reading On the Hunt for Classic Jazz: A Conversation with Zev Feldman

Jazz Piano: A Time-Lapse Round-up

For some unknown reason, my recent listening has tacked in the direction of mainstream jazz (although there’s still plenty of avant-garde, jazz/rock fusion and prog in the rotation). If I had to speculate, I’d say I might be looking for less tension and more release during my unobligated time — and for me, jazz offers that release with a cherry on top.

But what’s on offer in the current marketplace is a factor as well. Instead of baking sourdough bread or taking up acoustic guitar during the time of COVID, it’s as if jazz musicians and aficionados have all dug deep in their closets and simultaneously unearthed long lost vintage recordings — which record companies eager to fill their distribution pipelines have snapped up and launched into the wider world. A quintet of fresh releases by five masters of jazz piano serve as both cases in point and a unique, time-lapse look at the art form, from the late 1960s to today.

Currently, California-based Resonance Records is the leading exponent of this approach; in their catalog, veteran producer George Klabin and “jazz detective” Zev Feldman have assembled an impressive swath of previously unavailable live and studio sessions by giants of the genre, ranging from Nat King Cole’s swinging piano and vocal work through Sonny Rollins’ masterful extensions of bebop saxophone to an extraordinary big-band date by trail-blazing fusion bassist Jaco Pastorius. Feldman has also spearheaded a ongoing series of releases led by Bill Evans, whose graceful, innovative approach to jazz piano shaped the beating heart of Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, then influenced generations of his peers throughout a fruitful solo career. The latest in this series, Live at Ronnie Scott’s (out November 27 on LP and December 4 on CD) may be Feldman’s best find yet.

Captured during a four-week residency at the legendary London club in July 1968, Evans and his trio partners (bassist Eddie Gomez and drummer Jack DeJohnette, whose archive yielded the unreleased multitrack tape) are simply amazing: in tune with each other at the highest level, fearless and incisive in their approach to Evans originals, bebop classics from Miles and Thelonious Monk and the Great American Songbook. Evans’ reputation stemmed from his elevated, impressionistic lyricism, and there’s heaping helpings of that on display, but there’s also plenty of sheer rhythmic brio (often concentrated in Gomez’s resonant feature spots) and effortless, subtly thrilling swing. Liner notes that include contributions by premier British critic Brian Priestly (in attendance at the moment of creation), Gomez, DeJohnette, Chick Corea and Chevy Chase (!) provide all the context you need if you’re a neophyte in this territory. Expansive, spirited and utterly joyful, a rich blend of Evans’ veteran smarts with Gomez and DeJohnette’s youthful vigor, Live at Ronnie Scott’s really shouldn’t be missed.

Continue reading Jazz Piano: A Time-Lapse Round-up

THE STRATFORD FESTIVAL GOES DIGITAL

From Broadway World:

The Stratford Festival is following up on the success of its recent Shakespeare Film Festival with a $10-a-month digital content subscription, Stratfest@Home, offering more Shakespeare and more films, along with new commissions, music, conversation, cooking and comedy. A free film festival, with a theme of Hope Without Hope, will once again be offered on Thursday evenings.

“At this particular moment of pandemic, with social isolation once more upon us, nights growing longer and winter approaching, we need the consolation of community like never before. With these viewing parties and the many related artistic programs in Stratfest@Home, we invite you to enter the warmth of the Festival bubble,” says Artistic Director Antoni Cimolino.

The subscription cost will include:

  • access to the 12 Shakespeare films streamed on YouTube this past spring;
  • a growing library of Festival-related legacy films, interviews & discussions;
  • new content like the filmed-in-Stratford mini-soap opera Leer Estates, holiday specials for Halloween and U.S. Thanksgiving, and video introductions to the young actors currently studying at the Festival’s Birmingham Conservatory;
  • coming in 2021, the game show Undiscovered Sonnets and the concert series Up Close and Musical.

The free film festival begins this Thursday on YouTube. Already on the schedule are:

  • October 22: The 2011 production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night featuring the late Brian Dennehy (a great version that my wife & I saw in person – it includes cool songs by then-artistic director Des McAnuff, who worked with Pete Townshend on the Broadway version of Tommy);
  • October 29: The Stratford Festival Ghost Tours Halloween binge.
  • November 5: The 1994 production of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night. This one’s a legendary part of Festival history.
  • November 12: The 1992 production of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, with a young Antoni Cimolino as Romeo and Anne of Green Gables’ star Megan Follows as Juliet.
  • November 19: The 2000 production of Timothy Findley’s Elizabeth Rex, a Festival commission. Playwright Findley was in the acting company with Sir Alec Guinness for the Festival’s inaugural season in 1953.
  • November 26: The Early Modern Cooking Show U.S. Thanksgiving binge.
  • December 3: The 2010 production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, starring Christopher Plummer. (Another great version that we saw live — and also got Plummer’s autograph on his memoirs!)
  • December 10: The 2008 production of George Bernard Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra, starring Christopher Plummer.
  • December 17: All the Sonnets of Shakespeare, a lecture with readings.

You can learn more about Stratfest@Home and subscribe at https://www.stratfordfestival.ca/AtHome

— Rick Krueger

Beauty Against the Data Lords: The Maria Schneider Orchestra

Beauty like that is strength. One could turn the world upside down with beauty like that.

Doestoevsky, The Idiot

Over the past three decades, Minnesota-born composer Maria Schneider has staked out her own unique territory, based in jazz but expanding beyond category. From classical training and an apprenticeship with master arranger Gil Evans, Schneider parleyed her vivid sense of musical color, vibrant compositions and power-packed conducting skills into the leadership of a 20-piece Jazz Orchestra. At the height of the 1990s jazz boom, Schneider’s ensemble maintained a weekly residence at the New York club Visiones and recorded three fine, critically acclaimed albums (Evanescence, Coming About and Allegresse) for the German label Enja.

Reacting nimbly to the Internet’s disruption of music’s value, Schneider pivoted to crowdfunding for her 21st-century recordings. Concert in the Garden, Sky Blue and The Thompson Fields (along with Winter Morning Walks, a classical song cycle composed for soprano Dawn Upshaw) inhabit a rareified sweet spot where composition and improvisation feed each other, fusing the potent swing of classic big bands and the lush warmth of orchestral tone poems to evoke a deep-rooted, constantly unfolding delight in the world of nature.

But in 2014, David Bowie recruited Schneider and her orchestra for the jolting noir single “Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime).” The collaboration didn’t just boost Schneider’s profile (and result in sax player Donny McCaslin and guitarist Ben Monder backing Bowie on his swan song Blackstar); it unlocked a grainier, more shaded musical vocabulary, evident in her most recent commissions. This expansion also mirrored Schneider’s dedicated activism on behalf of copyright owners, pushing back against Big Data’s predation on both creative content and personal information.

The new Maria Schneider Orchestra double album Data Lords is the magnificent result, their most complete statement to date. Conveying both the bleak potential of online life blindly lived and the bounteous beauty of the life around us we take for granted, Schneider conjures up slow-burning musical structures that, as they catch fire, blaze with fear and dread — but also with hope and joy. Throughout there’s a symphonic sweep, a supple rhythmic foundation and a seamless flow of inexhaustible melody.

Continue reading Beauty Against the Data Lords: The Maria Schneider Orchestra

John Garth, The Worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien

Serious fans and scholars of J.R.R. Tolkien need little introduction to John Garth.  His Tolkien and the Great War (2003) is among the best books of this century on the creator of The Silmarillion, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.  With urgency and clarity, Garth laid bare the biographical and historical roots of Tolkien’s legendarium, along with the unique gifts and vision of the man who gave it life.

In the acknowledgments for The Worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien, Garth promises that another major book on Tolkien’s creative process is in the works.  Until then, what an delectable hors d’oeuvre we have to sate our appetites!   Focusing on “the places that inspired Middle-Earth,” Worlds is gorgeously illustrated with snapshots, paintings and drawings from Tolkien’s life, along with many more maps, illustrations and stunning photographs (sampled below).   

But it’s Garth’s commentary — always accessible, always deeply empathetic  — that leaves us richer for the reading.  He probes much farther than any mechanical equation, i.e. “Tolkien saw this [location/building/natural feature] and this place from the legendarium was obviously the result.”  In fact, knocking down some of the wilder theories in play is part of his brief — the family names in the Shire don’t all come from two villages in Kentucky; the “two towers” aren’t a dystopian refraction of Birmingham’s dark satanic mills.  Instead, Garth strives to see Tolkien’s art as the holistic fruit of his life — the circumstances, people, environment, culture and education that shaped him, working together organically with his mind and heart, loves and hates, interests, friendships, education, vocations and travels.

The result can seem unsystematic, yet it’s satisfyingly thorough, surveying how Tolkien drew on the creation he knew to realize his sub-created imaginary world over six decades.  The chapter “The Land of Luthien: from Faerie to Britain” is perhaps Garth’s most delightful achievement here, tracing the evolving picture of Middle-Earth and its correspondences with this world from 1918’s The Book of Lost Tales through to The Lord of the Rings.  But there’s a great deal more on display, as Garth muses on the impressions that seas, mountains, rivers and lakes, forests, centers of learning and towers of guard made on Tolkien — not just in his early life, but throughout his years as a scholar, soldier, husband, father, linguist, storyteller, colleague and friend.  The penultimate chapter, “Places of War” focuses once again on the crucible of the Western Front; Garth is in his element here, digging ever deeper into how the Battle of the Somme and its aftermath refined Tolkien the man, ultimately unleashing Tolkien the legend-maker.

For all this, John Garth and the design team at Quarto Publishing deserve heartfelt thanks.  Words and images work in concert throughout The Worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien, convincingly showing how the bardic depths of Middle-Earth are firmly founded on Tolkien’s experience in — and meditations about — the wonder and beauty of the fields we know.

To order The Worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien direct from the publisher at 50% off (ending June 28 at 11:59 pm EDT), click here.

— Rick Krueger

 

 

 

 

An Ontario Tempest

The next Shakespeare@Stratford film to hit YouTube is the Festival’s 2018 production of The Tempest, premiering on Thursday, May 14 and running for three weeks.  Here’s my review from when my wife and I saw the play live in October of that year.

This is the third production of The Tempest we’ve seen at Stratford, Ontario; since we started attending in 2004, the Festival has usually marketed the play as a chance to catch an actor of high skill and reputation (and often getting on in years) in the role of Prospero. 2005’s Tempest served as a grand farewell for William Hutt, the most accomplished classical actor in Canada’s theatrical history; the 2010 production was built on Christopher Plummer returning to the scene of his earliest triumphs. This time around, the hook was seeing Martha Henry (since Hutt’s passing, the current Greatest Living Canadian Actor) playing the exiled magician — part of a season with multiple productions (a gender-swapped Julius Caesar and a gender-fluid Comedy of Errors, along with the drag-rock musical The Rocky Horror Show) trendily exploring postmodern conceptions of freedom.

But any dreams or fears of a transgressive Tempest faded quickly; Henry forthrightly played Prospero as female — duchess of Milan, mother of Miranda, wizard ruler of an uncharted, enchanted island — with a few modest tweaks of the script not even scuffing the verse rhythms, and that was that. (After all, it’s a fairy tale; if you’re worried about the lines of descent for Renaissance Italian nobility being messed up, you’ve come to the wrong play.) Even better, this was an ensemble Tempest, with Henry clearly featured, but also clearly first among equals. Rather than chewing scenery a la Plummer or waxing grandiloquent like Hutt, she drove the plot without swallowing the stage, working to provide for her daughter, bring those who exiled her to book, reward virtue and punish wrong with formidable focus, aplomb and dry humor. And all the while, she genuinely wrestled with conflicting impulses: would she take vengeance on her adversaries, or show them mercy? It’s a tribute to Henry’s and director Antoni Cimolino’s conception that, even if you knew the play, the answer wasn’t telegraphed.

The strong cast also elevated this production, consistently playing off Henry’s indispensable work while fruitfully developing their own characters. Andre Morin’s Ariel did Prospero’s bidding with delight, while holding her to the promise of eventual freedom; Michael Blake’s Caliban chafed convincingly under her authoritarian rule. For once, the shipwrecked mariners were three-dimensional characters, not plot tokens — the King of Naples Alonso (David Collins) ripely autocratic, Prospero’s usurping brother Antonio (Graham Abbey) convincingly sociopathic, counselor Gonzalo (Rod Beattie) more of a sage and less of a fool than usual. Tom McCamus as butler Stephano and Stephen Ouimette as jester Trinculo clowned to perfection, nailing every laugh possible whether on their own, with Caliban or with the ensemble. The young lovers were the most pleasant surprise; Ferdinand and Miranda can feel like weak sauce in the wrong hands, but Sebastien Heins & Mamie Zwettler were spunky, passionate, intelligent, fully cognizant of their developing affections — strong & spot-on.

And yes, the special effects and pageantry (serious creature puppetry by the ensemble of Spirits & Monsters at key moments, Festival stalwarts Chick Reid and Lucy Peacock regally presiding over Act Four’s celebratory wedding masque) were impressive as always. But Stratford productions go deepest when they cut to the heart — and this Tempest showed us, beyond its numerous charms and delights, the depth of Prospero’s sacrifice. To become truly great as well as truly free, the exiled ruler must serve her enemies as well as her friends — forgiving wrongs, securing Naples and Milan’s future through Ferdinand and Miranda’s marriage, releasing the spirits of the island, and abjuring her “rough magic.” Martha Henry’s reading of Shakespeare’s Epilogue – bereft but relieved, slyly humorous in its appeal to the audience for final release through prayer and applause – communicated both the cost of Prospero’s renunciations, and their true worth. It was a lovely end to the best, most bracing production of The Tempest we’ve seen at the Festival.

Watch the premiere of The Tempest on the Stratford Festival’s YouTube channel tomorrow at 7 pm EDT; a pre-show chat with Martha Henry, Mamie Zwettler and Antoni Cimilono starts at 6:30 pm.

— Rick Krueger