As an orchestral composer, 32-year-old Thomas Adès is peerless in his assimilation and reinvention of musical style. Which - perhaps more than his archly entertaining first opera Powder her Face - explains the Royal Opera House's alacrity in commissioning a new work from a relatively inexperienced operatic voice. Who else could refract Brahms's symphonic writing into iridescent planes of imploded suspensions? Who else could start from a Purcellian ground-bass and expand into the most exquisite reflective quartet since Beethoven's Mir ist so wunderbar? Who else could conjure the severe-clear dazzle of Copland's horizons and blend them with the tetchy burp of a baroque gavotte, a shimmering skein of Debussian colours, or the salty thrust of a Britten seascape? All of these elements and more are present in The Tempest. But does this audacious profusion of orchestral brilliance really work as an opera?
Despite a first-night reception of unprecedented warmth, an orchestra who play with remarkable conviction and virtuosity, a stellar cast, an audience eager to support new music and a house free of drowsy corporate guests, The Tempest - the first chorus of which was completed only 10 days before its first performance - is still a work in progress.
Structurally, there are serious problems with this opera and, once again, I had cause to regret the cancellation of Nixon in China, which was due to have opened at the Coliseum only three days before.
Despite their near-polar musical styles, both works occupy magical and natural landscapes, both involve complex power-structures, themes of exile and disillusionment, chimerical idioms, multi-faceted orchestration, blitzkrieg coloratura and extended soliloquies. And both are the works of young composers. But where Adams, who was 38 when he started work on his first opera, had a water-tight storyboard for Nixon, Adès has yet to establish the dramatic value of The Tempest's myriad elements or decide how best to make each one amplify or illuminate the others. How much space should be afforded the minor characters? How significant is the strict social hierarchy of Shakespeare's original? At what point should the story close? (Act III has at least three contenders for final bar.) Beautiful as the music is, some urgent editing is needed.
Restructuring The Tempest may be painful but it is more than possible. More challenging will be a reassessment of the vocal-writing, which currently involves degrees of technical discomfort ranging from the unsympathetic to the sadistic. Though the characters are expertly delineated in their orchestral accompaniment, there is little individuation of vocal style. Adès's lines are preternaturally pitched: a neat conceit for the spirits but less convincing among the mortals.
Christopher Maltman (Sebastian), Toby Spence (Ferdinand), Lawrence Zazzo (Trinculo) and Philip Langridge (the King) have the technical and emotional measure of their roles but among this sublime cast Christine Rice (Miranda) is the only singer whose role matches the luxuriant lyricism of the orchestration. As poor, brittle Caliban, Ian Bostridge is ideally cast while Gwynne Howell (Gonzalo) and John Daszak (Antonio) lend humanity to their ungrateful lines. But what are we to think of writing that makes Stefano (Stephen Richardson) so un-funny or a central role that sees Simon Keenlyside (Prospero) straightjacketed? That blank, desolate, affectless style of word-setting that worked so well for Adès in America: A Prophecy adapts less well to the kitten-heeled couplets of Meredith Oakes's libretto and strips Keenlyside's Prospero of expressivity.
Oakes's pithy poetry needs the sort of quick-fire, crazed delivery it received in Gerald Barry's The Triumph of Beauty and Deceit. Here it sounds bland. And then there's Ariel. Marten aller Marten is child's play compared to Ariel, Lucia's Mad Scene merely a funny turn. Pitch aside, Ariel's vocal flagrancy - especially the "Bow-wow!" riff - has much in common with the lubricious outbursts of the Duchess of Argyll, while the melismas sound as though Adès is referencing Britten referencing Purcell referencing Lully referencing airs de cours ornamentation. Cyndia Sieden unpeels these onion layers of stylistic allusion and fioritura with a miraculous combination of elegance, poignancy and chutzpah. But who is going to replace her in a revival? The list of coloratura sopranos with a range that high is very, very short.
Though director-designer Tom Cairns celebrates Shakespeare's admixture of sea, air and earth with intoxicating colours, his production is disorganised. The cast meander around, often singing from an unfavourable distance, and somehow suggest a stage of stadium proportions. The semi-sunken floor and revolving rake play with our perceptions of real and imagined stature but lack of time with the finished score has hit every aspect of this project and the protocol of the court of Naples is far from clear. The costumes indicate that Cairns expected something more poppy - a sung Asyla, perhaps? - hence most of the characters look like figures from a New Wave video. Fibreglass amphibians litter the landscape, with a rampant T-Rex thrown in for B-movie kitsch appeal. It's brand new. It's retro. But Derek Jarman it ain't.
After the near-unanimous drubbing of Sophie's Choice and A Handmaid's Tale the success or failure of The Tempest may have impact beyond Adès's career. But rumours have it that he has already scheduled a revision, at which point Cairns and the singers will be able to revise their approaches, a conductor more experienced at working with choruses than Adès can be engaged, Sieden can be contracted for life, Covent Garden's investment should start to yield dividends, and the rest of Britain's composers can breathe again. Would I still suggest going to see it in its current form? Ticket prices are low, goodwill is high and there's a real buzz in the opera house. And there are many reasons to support Thomas Adès. In him, Britain has a composer of great potential and a composer with a voice immediately identifiable as his own. Except, that is, in the case of this work, with its alchemical collage of Britten, Brahms, Copland, Debussy, Beethoven and Purcell and that one magnificent moment where these voices are fused into something new and distinct and definitively operatic. It's not that Adès is lost for material. Far from it. There is too much material and some of it has to be cut. In rushing to meet a deadline, he has swept up the rushes from each day's filming and strung them together as best he can. For all its faltering, coltish, brave, new brilliance, The Tempest is a rough cut and I'd rather wait until the final edition before seeing it again.
Less glitzy but no less eagerly anticipated was Family Matters: the latest project from Tête à Tête and something of a surprise from a company celebrated for their portmanteau productions of operatic miniatures. Like the fabulous Shorts and Six-Pack, Family Matters uses six composers. But here they have collaborated on a single libretto - neatly adapted by Amanda Holden from the third of Beaumarchais's Figaro trilogy - and have turned out a lethargic composite in the style of Sondheim. Notwithstanding vivacious performances from Adey Grummet, Robert Burt and Sarah Jillian Cox, Tim Meacock's superb stage designs, the dancing oranges, and the ever-excellent musical and theatrical direction of Stuart Stratford and Bill Bankes-Jones, translating the Almavivas of Seville into the Fitzroys of SW1 has made what was previously a relishably urban, hip take on contemporary opera into something rather dull and bourgeois. With Shorts and Six-Pack, Tête à Tête had a uniquely appealing formula.
And if it ain't broke, why fix it?
'The Tempest': Royal Opera House, London WC2 (020 7304 4000), to Friday. 'Family Matters': Bridewell, London EC4 (020 7936 3456), to 22 Feb, then touringReuse content