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Thomas ADÈS (b.1971)
The Tempest (2004)
Kate Royal (soprano) - Miranda; Ian Bostridge (tenor) - Caliban; Simon Keenlyside (baritone) - Prospero; Toby Spence (tenor) - Ferdinand; Philip Langridge (tenor) - King of Naples; Cyndia Sieden (soprano) - Ariel; Donald Kaasch (tenor) - Antonio; Stephen Richardson (bass-baritone) - Stefano; David Cordier (counter-tenor) - Trinculo; Jonathan Summers (baritone) - Sebastian; Graeme Danby (bass) - Gonzalo)
Orchestra and Chorus of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden/Thomas Adès
rec. live, 23, 26 March 2007, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London. DDD
[72:36 + 44:48]
Experience Classicsonline

Having so far managed to steer clear of the hype and marketing furore which used to surround Thomas Adès, I have to admit at the outset that I am probably less familiar with his work than many of you reading this review. Does this disqualify me from commenting? I hope not. Having thus plunged in at the deep end with The Tempest, I can at least make an honest claim for approaching both work and composer with fresh ears, and a mind uncluttered, I hope, by prejudice or bias.

I did do a little research, and was intrigued to read how this piece was not particularly enjoyed in its 2004 production by Melanie Eskenazi in her Seen and Heard review elsewhere on this site. The 2007 production as recorded here has many of the same cast members, and I can only imagine that the roles must have matured through the intervening three or so years. All of the singers give powerful performances, with Cyndia Sieden’s remarkable high coloratura standing out as intensely memorable. Such extremes of range are rarely heard in such a sustained way, and here it is something of a mixed blessing. Opera libretti are hard enough to understand at the best of times, even with the tantalising feel that one should at the very least be able to follow a text in English. While the men’s parts can sometimes be understood with a good deal of concentration the high soprano’s representation of Ariel might as well be a vocalise, as the entire text is lost in such passages as almost any kind of realistic articulation at this range is humanly impossible. The only voice which initially gives a mildly discomforting impression is counter-tenor David Cordier’s Trinculo. This is more the result of a difference in style, with his more ‘early music’ restraint in terms of vibrato contrasting with the other singers’ more typical operatic projection.

There is no reason why an opera should follow any kind of pattern or tradition, but it is worth knowing that there is little or nothing here by way of a ‘big tune’: one or more arias or themes which might be taken away and savoured in the memory. There are some lovely moments though, and I feel Adès is at his best when allowing himself time for reflection. After the tumult and dissonance of the previous sections in Act I, Ariel’s Five fathoms deep/your father lies is a welcome moment of ethereal simplicity. Why Shakespeare’s text needed ‘improving’ at this point I am not sure, but I admire the way Adès avoids turning this set-piece into a more conventional song. In so doing he would have compromised the integrity of the score, but by weighing anchor with such clearly Tippett-inspired bell sounds he does show his hand somewhat in the eclectic stakes.

Back into the more typical fray of the first act, and to my ears, much of the vocal writing sounds as if it is doing its best to get through as much text as possible, without doing much of significance to convey its emotional content. So much is sung with so little rhythmic interest: wap, wap ,wap, wap; note, note, note, note. I think this is one of the main reasons the singers have a hard time creating convincing characterisations: there’s just too much of the same kind of material for each voice. There is some marvellous ensemble writing towards the end of Act I, but without the libretto to hand it’s hard to know what everyone is getting quite so passionate about. I’m sure it must have worked well with the visual clues, but I’ll just have to settle for having to follow the libretto while listening, and wait for the DVD release meanwhile.

This is very much a live recording, and while the audience noises are negligible beyond a few coughs and the applause at the end of each act, there is a fair amount of tramping about on stage. Act II engages the listener with the dramatic exchanges between Sebastian, Antonio and others. There is a moment of ‘League of Gentlemen’ mirth as Caliban enters in Scene Two and the chorus make rude remarks: “A monster! A local!” Caliban’s ‘Friends don’t fear’ is Adès’s Michael Nyman tribute moment, the music pretty much as on Nyman’s Débarcadère from La Traversée de Paris right down to being in the same key. No doubt more erudite readers will be able to tell us if or from where it was adapted by Nyman. What I find a bit annoying about the setting later on is the vertical nature of the writing. Huge amounts of the words are connected directly to the orchestra beneath which is fine for a while, but soon becomes rather heavy. Imagine a recitative under each word-of-which-a-chooord-is-play’d. Released from this device into another more reflective musical atmosphere for a while, the King of Naples has another fine moment with ‘My son is dead’, the strings being stroked gently under his tender, grieving words. The lamenting Ferdinand is given a similarly effective section in Scene Four, joined later on in a lovely duet with Miranda. It’s a shame the audience applause breaks into the final note at the end of disc 1, no doubt prompted by the fall of the curtain.

There’s a ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ cinematographic feel to some of Act III, and I sense an almost too literal reflection of the text. Marked incorrectly against the libretto in the booklet, the music becomes more interesting at track 5 on disc 2, with a creepily oriental feel topped with bells and a finely balanced and beautifully intonated piccolo. Strikingly, John Williams meets Martinů at 2:11 into this section. There is plenty of dark psychological drama wrung out of the miserable situations and murderous intent, with a growling ‘leitmotif’ progression accompanying Prospero’s imprecations and prophesies. Here, the contrast between his and Ariel’s flights are emphasised most effectively in the orchestral colours, resulting in some quite magical effects. The finale builds from Scene Four, with a creeping pizzicato bass underlying the re-appearance of the cast for a Mozartean ensemble, and Prospero wrapping everything up with a typical absence of lightness and subtlety: ‘Now my work is at an end/I can mar and I can mend.’ Boom boom. The happy ending is balanced with darker consequence, and, hearing the final section as a kind of beautiful coda, we are drawn back down from uncertain triumph into the loneliness of Caliban and the grim mystery of the sea.

One of my ways of becoming acquainted with new pieces is to download them onto an MP3 player so I can listen to them while biking to work. This meant first hearing The Tempest in 20-25 minute chunks, depending on the prevailing winds and traffic lights. I did find that, like reading a good novel, I was looking forward to encountering what came next rather than hoping it would all be over sooner rather than later. Yes, there are numerous things in the opera which I would consider flaws: all those sequential chunks for a start, and the sometimes rather stereotypical shapes and gestures which follow a libretto of not always entirely even quality. This is a very impressive and memorable piece however, albeit rather too close to the sonorities, and traditions of Tippett and others to be given many plus points in terms of absolute originality. It must however be nearly impossible to create a new opera without having folks like me pick at how it relates to other composers’ operatic work. I appreciate this grounding in well-tested tradition as opposed to an attempt at avant-garde cleverness for the sake of novelty. This is one of those pieces which you can inhabit and wander around in. Powerfully performed and given a very fine live recording, The Tempest creates its own world and for this reason makes a forceful impression, despite inviting several external ‘presences’ into its sphere.

Dominy Clements




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