I was disappointed when I saw Thomas Adès' much-admired Tempest on its second run at Covent Garden in 2007. A live recording (presumably a portmanteau made of excerpts from various dates on the run) has been released on EMI to more acclaim, yet I remain disappointed.
The piece fundamentally misuses the genre of opera, as it does the Shakespearean source material. The action has been condensed into 3 acts, as one would expect in the opera house. More troubling, though, is how this tightening plays out in the libretto at a local level. The elementary problem of reshaping the text whilst doing justice to its spirit and its poetry is handled without delicacy or grace.
Meredith Oakes' libretto abandons all the poetic expansiveness of the original – the locus of Shakespeare's unmatched illuminations of the human spirit, where literature and language chafe at the sublime – in favour of banal rhyming couplets. Ferdinand and Miranda in Act 1: 'I'm paralysed by him, I can't command my limbs. Why must you be so savage? He's not done you any damage.' Caliban, the source of much wounded eloquence in the original, says things like 'I can’t tell, I'm not well.' Even at places where the change is more subtle a vastness of serenity is lost. Prospero's final speech, the highlight of all of England's gifts to the world, just comes across as perfunctory here ('cities will perish, Palaces vanish, The globe itself Dissolve, Nothing stay, All will fade'). Instances like this abound.
Of course this may have been a very deliberate strategy. The point of setting poetry or drama in music is to transfigure that text with sound, and if five acts of thickly conceived poetic marvels doesn’t stand in your way, all the better. Clearly The Tempest, with its symbolic arcana and its delirious profundity, would seem highly alluring to a composer. But there’s a reason there hasn't been a successful full operatic version before, and that reason, the swerve and span of the original, is merely ironized here to no great end. The text is a ghost in this version, heard only in some flickering wonders in the score.
The music occasionally boasts of the same vim apparent in some of the composer's other music, such as his Living Toys. The overture blasts forth in harsh cross rhythms like a distant (more mainstream) cousin of the same section of Ligeti's opera. Yet even there Adès falls short of the terrible sublime conjured by Sibelius in the storm prelude for his incidental music to the play.
Some elements of wispy, fluorescent dreams pass in to the orchestral music between scenes that evoke something of Shakespeare's enchantments. Cheering memories of Adams (in the big inflected-minor chords), Birtwistle's Punch and Judy (especially Prospero and Ariel's menacing skipping repetitions of 'haunt them, taunt them, goad and tease' in the first scene of the second act), and Britten (the instrumental colouring and the enriched tonality throughout, especially in the introduction to Act 3), actually seem natural, and sit well in the flow. Ferdinand, Miranda and Prospero's trio in the first act contains some remarkable writing for the voice, backed with vivid and eclectic orchestral colour. The love duet is powerful and devout with an undercurrent of doubt in the ensemble. The piano, glock and piccolo orientalism seduces in the final sections. Ariel's heart-stopping verse to end scene 5 (with fluorescent hummings from orchestra) astounds. All of these sections are written with skill and conviction, and performed with flavour by the ROH band.
Yet the score is haunted, for me, by other music. The compositional voice is unresolved; it seeks the grand standing of pageant composition, whilst always trying to preserve something of the modern, something of the aporia of modernism. Compared to the composer's own much more vigorous Powder Her Face (which echoes here in Ariel's entry on 'aaaah', inventively post-figuring the Duchess' 'ah ha ha' entrance in the earlier piece), The Tempest comes across as trying to be something it is not, something to too many people at once.
The vocal writing and its accompaniment are problematic throughout. There is little contrast in the style of the writing for the voice (which leans primarily towards strained arioso). More troublingly, almost every vocal utterance is shadowed in the orchestra with lines in rhythmic unison on various instruments. This technique can work well if done sparingly, particularly in an idiom such as this where the line can seem unhinged, but here it chains the singers to a particular expressive space they cannot break free from. Ariel's aforementioned passage at the end of scene 5 is one of the few instances when a singer breaks free from this constraint, and the effect is revelatory. It would probably be too much to suggest that this bind symbolises Prospero's power over the island. With or without any poetic justification, though, it really grates on the ear after a while. One more point on this; the delirious, paint-stripping tessitura in which Cyndia Sieden is asked to sing doesn't succeed in conveying Ariel's otherworldliness as, to my ears at least, all one hears is a human trying very hard to sound inhuman (despite the startling efforts of Sieden). Ariel's words cannot be made out either.
The singing is impressive on this release though. Ian Bostridge's voice has a dark lustre and an unusual abandon; he conveys real anger in 'this island's mine', and is more lavish and expressive in one of the score's highpoints, his 'The island's full of noises' in Act 2 (backed by yearning, many-layered consonance in the harmonic writing). Kate Royal is secure in a difficult vocal role as Miranda, and her projection and presence overshadows Toby Spence's sweet-voiced Ferdinand in the duet. Simon Keenlyside as ever completely inhabits and invigorates the character, here in all his gruffness and ambiguity. Despite one or two careless moments, he communicates the strange character of Prospero as well on disc as he did on stage. Their performances are matched by an orchestra clearly on top of the material, and sensitive to its many nooks and recollections (helped by the confident guiding hand of the composer as conductor). Yet the work lets them all down somewhat. Why was it written? To drag its composer up to the pantheon of big opera composers? All the mixed up ability and ambitions of Thomas Adès are evident in the impressive but unresolved slickness of his Tempest.
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