The Tempest, Royal Opera House, London

A triumph for Britain's brightest and best

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.

Arts and Entertainment
Rachel McAdams in True Detective season 2

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Off the wall: the cast of ‘Life in Squares’

Arts and Entertainment

Books And it is whizzpopping!

Arts and Entertainment
Bono throws water at the crowd while the Edge watches as they perform in the band's first concert of their new world tour in Vancouver

MusicThey're running their own restaurants

The main entrance to the BBC headquarters in London
TV & Radio
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Solved after 200 years: the mysterious deaths of 3,000 soldiers from Napoleon's army

    Solved after 200 years

    The mysterious deaths of 3,000 soldiers from Napoleon's army
    Every regional power has betrayed the Kurds so Turkish bombing is no surprise

    Robert Fisk on the Turkey conflict

    Every regional power has betrayed the Kurds so Turkish bombing is no surprise
    Investigation into wreck of unidentified submarine found off the coast of Sweden

    Sunken sub

    Investigation underway into wreck of an unidentified submarine found off the coast of Sweden
    Instagram and Facebook have 'totally changed' the way people buy clothes

    Age of the selfie

    Instagram and Facebook have 'totally changed' the way people buy clothes
    Not so square: How BBC's Bloomsbury saga is sexing up the period drama

    Not so square

    How Virginia Woolf saga is sexing up the BBC period drama
    Rio Olympics 2016: The seven teenagers still carrying a torch for our Games hopes

    Still carrying the torch

    The seven teenagers given our Olympic hopes
    The West likes to think that 'civilisation' will defeat Isis, but history suggests otherwise

    The West likes to think that 'civilisation' will defeat Isis...

    ...but history suggests otherwise
    The bald truth: How one author's thinning hair made him a Wayne Rooney sympathiser

    The bald truth

    How thinning hair made me a Wayne Rooney sympathiser
    Froome wins second Tour de France after triumphant ride into Paris with Team Sky

    Tour de France 2015

    Froome rides into Paris to win historic second Tour
    Fifteen years ago, Concorde crashed, and a dream died. Today, the desire to travel faster than the speed of sound is growing once again

    A new beginning for supersonic flight?

    Concorde's successors are in the works 15 years on from the Paris crash
    I would never quit Labour, says Liz Kendall

    I would never quit party, says Liz Kendall

    Latest on the Labour leadership contest
    Froome seals second Tour de France victory

    Never mind Pinot, it’s bubbly for Froome

    Second Tour de France victory all but sealed
    Oh really? How the 'lowest form of wit' makes people brighter and more creative

    The uses of sarcasm

    'Lowest form of wit' actually makes people brighter and more creative
    A magazine editor with no vanity, and lots of flair

    No vanity, but lots of flair

    A tribute to the magazine editor Ingrid Sischy
    Foraging: How the British rediscovered their taste for chasing after wild food

    In praise of foraging

    How the British rediscovered their taste for wild food