The Tempest, Royal Opera House, London

Whipping up a storm
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The Independent Culture

As composers, critics and other interested parties have been queuing up to say in print in the past weeks, nothing so far in the career of Thomas Adès has needed to matter as much as this world premiere of his new opera, The Tempest. And as nothing in the recent history of British music seems to have mattered so much as Thomas Adès, it was bound to be a momentous evening. Or at least, a moment of reckoning for those who have either idol-worshipped Adès like a Second Coming after Britten or damned him as brilliant but emotionally vacuous.

As composers, critics and other interested parties have been queuing up to say in print in the past weeks, nothing so far in the career of Thomas Adès has needed to matter as much as this world premiere of his new opera, The Tempest. And as nothing in the recent history of British music seems to have mattered so much as Thomas Adès, it was bound to be a momentous evening. Or at least, a moment of reckoning for those who have either idol-worshipped Adès like a Second Coming after Britten or damned him as brilliant but emotionally vacuous.

The Tempest isn't vacuous. In fact, it's probably the first new opera I've experienced in 20 years that left me feeling not just intellectually aroused but deeply moved. It represents a huge advance on Adès's last theatre piece, Powder Her Face, which was commercially successful but artistically effete: a piece of brittle, heartless camp that the composer, I suspect/hope, will disown before too long.

The Tempest comes, by contrast, writ large with a heartfelt cinematic schmaltz, each Act developing from slow-start, conversational routines into near-Straussian romantic beauty. And the Strauss wins every time, despite colour and texture debts to Michael Tippett and a long ensemble in the last Act that moves Britten-like to the recurring bassline of a pseudo-baroque passacaglia.

Not only is the writing beautiful; it's largely clear and clean - with simple melodies that bleed into the following material, binding whole scenes into coherence, and with a surprising amount of orchestral writing in rhythmic unison with the voices. So you hear most of the text, except the words of Ariel, which come at frenzied dog-pitch, hovering around top Es - punishing to sing for Cyndia Sieden, who is asked to play the role like a demented insect. Squealing.

The allocation of roles to voices is a touch perverse. Why Prospero is cast so young (for Simon Keenyside) or Caliban so high (for the ethereal tenor Ian Bostridge, reinventing Shakespeare's earthy monster as a fey, transvestite pop-star with a drink problem) I don't know. Adès playing games, I guess.

But it becomes a roll-call of the brightest and the best in British singing - young and old as well, from Christopher Maltman and Toby Spence to Philip Langridge and Gwynne Howell. Given that Adès was still writing everything until last Thursday and that rehearsals must have been fraught, they make a heroic team.

And what of Shakespeare? Well, he doesn't do too badly. Tom Cairns's staging takes a long while (two Acts) to deliver island magic but it gets there - courtesy of Apple Mac rather than true Arcadia.

The set is hi-tech, scratch-board sketchy, dominated by a massive deck that opens like an artist's palette - used presumably by Prospero to paint his magic world.

As for the words, you don't get Shakespeare's; but you get something that effectively suggests them at key moments, written by Meredith Oakes in rhyming couplets of impactful clarity. Neat and direct.

Writing this notice within half an hour of curtain-down, I wouldn't dare to sit in judgement on the lasting stature of the score. But I can say that, as conducted by the composer himself, it struck me as alluring, dazzling and (more than this) substantial. A coming-of-age piece. And, yes, momentous.



To 20 Feb (020-7304 4000)

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