The Royal Opera – The Tempest

The Tempest – An Opera in Three Acts [Libretto by Meredith Oakes after Shakespeare]

Prospero – Simon Keenlyside
Miranda – Kate Royal
Ferdinand – Toby Spence
Caliban – Ian Bostridge
Ariel – Cyndia Sieden
King of Naples – Philip Langridge
Antonio – Donald Kaasch
Sebastian – Jonathan Summers
Trinculo – David Cordier
Stefano – Stephen Richardson
Gonzalo – Graeme Danby

The Royal Opera Chorus
The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Thomas Adès

Tom Cairns – Director/sets
Moritz Junge – Costumes/sets
Wolfgang Göbbel – Lighting
Aletta Collins – Choreography

Reviewed by: Rob Witts

Reviewed: 12 March, 2007
Venue: The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London

When Thomas Adès’s “The Tempest” first burst upon the Covent Garden stage in 2004, it was in some ways difficult to hear above the storm of speculation whipped up in the media around its apparently difficult passage to production. Since then, the piece has been staged in Strasbourg, Copenhagen and Santa Fe; this revival, which coincides with the Adès retrospective at the Barbican Centre, offers an opportunity to see how it has weathered.

The answer is, very well. This revival shows “The Tempest” as a grand opera that works on its own terms. Adès’s musical scheme is boldly drawn, with an overarching plan that moves gradually from the frenzied dissonance of the opening storm scene to the consonant calm of Prospero’s reconciliation and renunciation of his powers. This is both musically and emotionally satisfying, echoing the progress of the drama from conflict to resolution, and allows the characters’ transformations to take place audibly.

Within this scheme, each character is given a distinct idiom, most spectacularly the sprite Ariel, whose stratospheric coloratura lines convey her otherworldliness. This makes the drama clear, and also enables the comedy in the piece – as when Caliban’s plans for uprising are sung to a hobbled parody of Prospero’s declamatory music. Most impressive of all are the set-pieces, such as Caliban’s beautifully still Act Two aria and the concluding passacaglia-quintet with its echoes of Purcell. These formal moments seem to emerge naturally from the narrative.

The orchestration throughout is magnificent; Adès writes wonderfully for the low registers (witness the slithering double bass and contrabassoon line that opens Act Two) and even as the gleaming triads of the second and third acts emerge, they are made thrilling and new by instrumental textures that seem on the verge of dissolving into air. The Royal Opera Orchestra is on precise and punchy form under the composer’s direction.

The revival reunites many of the original and outstanding cast. Simon Keenlyside is a commanding Prospero, and uncovers the emotional conflict in a character that could be inert in the hands of a less-able dramatic singer. Cyndia Sieden has made Ariel her own, singing in every production to date, and it is difficult to imagine who else would take on such a challenge. (It is possible that some of Ariel’s later entries have been adjusted slightly downward – if so, this is to the good.) Toby Spence shines as Ferdinand, and Philip Langridge lends gravitas as the King of Naples, movingly mourning the presumed death of his son. Ian Bostridge is once more a singularly odd Caliban, emphasising the stunted nobility behind the shambling, bestial exterior. Of the newcomers, Kate Royal makes the greatest impression as Miranda, glorious in her love duet with Ferdinand.

Meredith Oakes’s cribbed libretto no longer seems the problem it did in 2004; while in no way the equal of Shakespeare’s verse, her couplets do what a good libretto should and stay out of the way of the music, though the occasional pedestrian rhyme still grates. The design by Tom Cairns and Moritz Junge has a retro, sci-fi look, with moments of brilliance: the storm, with its fluorescent flashes and airborne sprites, and Ferdinand’s appearance amid back-projected rolling surf.

While not perfect (the ending still feels slightly perfunctory), “The Tempest” stands as a worthy addition to the canon of Shakespearean opera; Adès has indeed created something rich and strange, which future productions will doubtless continue to explore.

  • Remaining performances on 15, 17, 20, 23 & 26 March at 7.30
  • Box office: 020 7304 4000
  • Royal Opera

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