The Tempest, Royal Opera House, London
A triumph for Britain's brightest and best
Wednesday 11 February 2004
As composers, critics and other interested parties have been queuing in the past weeks to write: nothing so far in the career of Thomas Adès has needed to matter so much as last night's Covent Garden 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 Benjamin 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 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 Sir Michael Tippett and a long ensemble in the last act that moves Britten-like to the recurring bass-line 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 and punishing to sing for Cynthia Sieden who is asked to play the role like a demented insect.
The allocation of roles to voices is a touch perverse. Why Prospero is cast so young (for Simon Keenlyside) 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 perhaps.
But it becomes a roll call of the brightest and the best in British singing, from Christopher Maltman and Toby Spence to Philip Langridge and Gwynne Howell. Given that Adès only finished writing 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' staging takes a long while (two acts) to deliver island magic but it gets there. The set is high 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.
I wouldn't dare to sit in judgement on the lasting stature of the score. But, 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.
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