At a shade over two hours (three acts around 36, 39 and 46 minutes respectively), and a relatively standard-sized orchestral apparatus, no one could accuse Adès of mindless ambition in his approach. Moreover, the balance between voices and instruments was expertly maintained throughout, enabling one to hear every last rhyming couplet of Meredith Oakes’s libretto – including some that the surtitles thought better of screening. The description given at the front of the printed text may be revealing: "Set to music by Thomas Adès" rather implies that Oakes had assembled her libretto "after William Shakespeare" independently, perhaps even before Adès began to compose. Nothing inherently wrong with that (think of all those Metastasio and Scribe rehashes), but it suggests this was not primarily a collaborative venture, with its dynamic ’give and take’ in the creation of words and music.
Oakes’s libretto might itself be described as workmanlike – preserving the sense of the original, while ’regularising’ its language along the lines of those texts utilised in secondary schools to help convey the feel of Shakespeare’s plays. Not so much awkward as inelegant and over-literal in its syntax, which must surely have influenced the uniformity of setting and pacing over large portions of the opera – something one would not otherwise have expected from Adès. The opening scene of Act Two, the courtiers finding themselves shipwrecked on the island, is a case in point. What could have been a diverting interplay of characters and voices was a dull succession of exchanges, largely devoid of humour or pathos, which did little more than to set the text as it stood. And the numerous instances elsewhere of dialogue either taken at face value or, worse, made unintentionally humorous reinforced this sense of a libretto set as an essentially passive process.
Like others before him, Adès had made the progression from the theatre studio to the opera house – starting with the chamber opera Powder Her Face which was a highlight of English-language music-theatre in the 1990s. Moving up in terms of scale can mean one of two things: either a reinvention of opera from first principles, such as Birtwistle brought off in The Mask of Orpheus, or an amalgam of established musical and theatrical practice – revivified from a present-day perspective – which is Adès’s preferred option. Such is evident in the vocal writing, Purcellian linearity beefed up with a little Straussian rhetoric, and in the orchestral contribution – its Britten-like clarity at times enriched with the harmonic effusiveness of earlier Tippett. Fine so long as the resulting synthesis coheres without simplifying the composer’s musical and dramatic idiom – which is what often seems to happen here.
Page after page of the score is alive with vocal and orchestral felicities, applied in a stylish but generalised manner that fails either to uncover deeper emotions within the protagonists, or to encourage greater empathy with or hostility to their actions. The degree of success that Adès had in bringing characters alive in the earlier opera makes such a failing in The Tempest all the more surprising. And such expressive highpoints as Ariel’s ethereal “Five fathoms deep” aria in Act One, Caliban’s ecstatic “The island’s full of noises” solo in Act Two, and the fervent exchanges between Ferdinand and Miranda in Act Three feel too calculated as part of the music’s evolution rather than arising inevitably out of it. In other words, self-consciousness in the interaction of music and drama restricts the theatrical potency of the opera from the onset of its (evidently sub-Sibelian) prelude.
Vocally, Adès has clearly conceived the major roles with specific singers in mind, and could scarcely have been better served. Simon Keenlyside dominates much of the time onstage with a forceful yet eloquent Prospero, his reasoned humanity simultaneously placing him at the centre of events while removing him from their wider implications. Ian Bostridge is in his element as Caliban, a part which abounds in lyrically unfolding lines without untoward leaps such as might threaten accuracy of pitch. Cyndia Sieden admirably brings off the punishing coloratura writing for Ariel, though this is the one instance where Adès seems to have misjudged matters: such acrobatics grow wearing when the part is integral to the drama rather than a cameo during the course of it. Toby Spence and Christine Rice are well matched vocally as Ferdinand and Miranda, while Philip Langridge conveys palpable remorse as the King of Naples, and Gwynne Howell a comparable sincerity as Gonzalo – the gravitas of his Act Three lament impressive precisely because it emerges as if intuitively. John Daszak and Christopher Maltman complement each other effectively as the scheming Antonio and Sebastian, with Lawrence Zazzo and Stephen Richardson are amusing as the long-suffering sailors Trinculo and Stefano. The Royal Opera Chorus, sparingly used but with some evocative offstage contributions, acquits itself ably.
As to staging, the production is best described as middling. Best is Wolfgang Göbbel’s lighting – its succession of subtle primary shades apposite to the scene in question, and never intrusive. Moritz Junge’s costumes go some way to delineating character, though Caliban’s has inescapable overtones of ’Thin White Duke’-era David Bowie, and the Laurie Anderson fluorescence of Ariel’s attire begs the question of whether designers consider opera audiences to be either out of time or merely behind it. Tom Cairns, whose effective sets for the Glyndebourne production of Birtwistle’s The Second Mrs Kong resonate in the memory, contributes some effective ideas – notably the Míro-esque backdrop at the start of the opera and some tangibly menacing imagery for the feast scene. But the rising and falling canopy which dominates centre-stage – around which the choreography of Aletta Collins is necessarily tentative – coupled with some rather desultory-looking ’exotic island’ props are hardly meaningful adjuncts either to the events depicted or to the drama played out in the music.
Adès conducts with the sure touch that he has displayed on many other occasions – obtaining a lightness and accuracy from the Royal Opera House Orchestra – on enviable form for a ’first night’ – and looking understandably pleased when the musicians bid him take the full approbation. No fault of his as executant if one is left still uncertain as to what motivated him to a treatment of this play in the first instance: what he had hoped to bring to it in terms of theatrical relevance or dramatic necessity, as interpreted through a musical idiom as focussed yet inclusive as that of any creative figure working today. And yet, admirable in its stagecraft and resource though The Tempest manifestly is, from a composer of Thomas Adès’s calibre, one might reasonably have hoped for more.
- Remaining performances: February 12, 16, 18 & 20 at 7.30, and 14 February at 7 p.m. Box office: 020 7304 4000
- Performance on 18th broadcast live on BBC Radio 3, and televised on BBC4 on 21 February at 7 p.m.
- Royal Opera