Gotham closed its 14th season this weekend with a modest, though rewarding offering: The Tempest Songbook, which opened on Friday at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. A collaboration between Gotham and theMartha Graham Dance Company, this production was the brainchild of the conductor Neal Goren, Gotham’s artistic director, and the director/choreographer Luca Veggetti (director of The Raven). The initial idea was to present a staged version of Kaija Saariaho’s The Tempest Songbook, composed in 2004, a group of five songs for two singers and chamber ensemble set to texts from Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Ms. Saariaho’s work, though full of dramatic potential for staging, lasts just over 20 minutes. So she suggested including some songs written for a 1712 production in London of John Dryden’s adaptation of The Tempest. This music has been attributed to Purcell, though some scholars dispute this; John Weldon has been proposed as another candidate.
Juxtaposing Ms. Saariaho’s songs, which she rescored for a Baroque ensemble of eight instruments, with the songs by Purcell (for simplicity’s sake, let’s assume he was the composer), proved an inspired idea. So too was the concept of fashioning the music into an integrated piece for two singers and four dancers. The simple, bare set, on the stage at the museum’s Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium, was dominated by a grayish, earthlike orb hanging from a cord upon which atmospheric images by the video artist Jean-Baptiste Barrière were projected. Sometimes the globe became a swirling mass of abstract colors and shapes, suggestive of continental drift. During eerie stretches, murky images of the performers appeared on the orb, which periodically was raised, or spun, or pushed around.
There was no attempt to relate the story of the play in this 50-minute work. The songs became self-contained monologues or miniscenes involving exchanges between two characters. The Tempest Songbook opened with Purcell’s Overture in G minor. It was rather magical, and not at all jarring, to shift from the musical realm of English Baroque style to Ms. Saariaho’s hazy, diaphanous and quizzical modern music, as in the intensely expressive “Miranda’s Lament.”
In that lament, and in all the songs she performed, the soprano Jennifer Zetlan abounded in vocal warmth and dramatic fervor. The muscular bass-baritone Thomas Richards was riveting from his first song, Ms. Saariaho’s “Bosun’s Cheer,” in which he alternated raspy shouting with stentorian singing. The dancers — Abdiel Jacobsen, PeiJu Chien-Pott, Lloyd Mayor and Ying Xin — appeared in male-female pairs, one pair wearing casual clothing, the other black tights and shirts with their heads covered in sheer black fabric. The dancers turned gyrating, angular, sometimes contortionlike movements into mystical expressions of elegance. It was impressive to see the singers, especially Ms. Zetlan, gamely interacting with the dancers to bring a choreographic dimension to their performances.
Gotham continues to stretch and grow artistically. As an offering in an opera season, “The Tempest Songbook” was fairly modest. Still, better to grow slowly and soundly.