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The Tempest, ROH
19 Mar 2007

The Tempest at Covent Garden

This year is Thomas Adés’ annus mirabilis. He’s the subject of a major, six-week retrospective at the Barbican, and, of course, will be a major presence at the Aldeburgh Festival.

Thomas Adés: The Tempest

Royal Opera House, London, 15th March 2007


There are also commemoratives in Paris and Oslo. This revival of the Tempest was almost completely sold out : in short, Adés most certainly has arrived in the mainstream.

Much of the appeal of this opera must lie in its sumptuous, spectacular staging. Bathed in jewel-coloured light, it evokes the sense of fantasy and unreality that is central to the plot. The eye is seduced by this fabulous magic, and the ear responds. The dischordant, difficult music doesn’t seem nearly as raw in the context of such beauty. This music may be modern but it’s based on a very traditional premise: that is should be dramatic. It most certainly is exciting — the overture that depicts the demonic storm teems with trumpet alarums, crashing cymbals and drum rolls. It’s so busy that it’s quite a shock to hear the words “Hell is empty”.

Cyndia Sieden’s Ariel is emblematic. Her image, swathed in luminescent neon green and black will be forever associated with the opera, however many future productions it receives. Her role is far more crucial to the action than the somewhat under-developed other characters. Ariel symbolises the elusive and quite unsettling magic on this bizarre island. Above all, she has the most unusual music. Its tessitura is cruelly high, and really does seem written for a non-human elemental. Few singers could manage this, and for hours at a time, and still act with complete charisma. This role will immortalise Sieden, for it won’t be easy to improve on.

Similar torture is inflicted on the other vocal parts, so much so that, despite their familiarity with this opera, even experienced singers like Philip Langridge and Simon Keenlyside were stretched by extremely high pitches, often reached by swoops upwards from the lower register. This is no criticism. The writing is completely counter-intuitive to “normal” vocal practice, for it imposes choppy, angular rhythms on syntax, breaking up what might be “normal” vocal lines. There may be duets and arias and set ensembles, here, but they serve as an extension of the orchestral writing, rather than being vocal star turns in themselves. Perhaps that’s the rationale behind the libretto, which is, frankly, ugly and facetious. Maybe we’re being asked to forget the words and listen instead to their musical effect. Alas, I’m not sure this is the case as there are supposedly clever jokes written in to lighten the atmosphere. In any case, the extreme demands on the singers meant that diction took second place to simply getting the notes right. This was less of a problem than might be expected, because musical logic here was antithetical to the text : meaning for the most part was conveyed through voice as used a supra-musical instrument, rather than through what was being sung. Adés himself conducted, so the reading was electric.

Luckily, Adés has given some of the best music to semi-abstract vocalise. Most people know the words to “Full Fathoms Five”, so Sieden’s incredibly long, high legato transcended text altogether, literally creating a “sea-change, into something rich and strange”. Particularly lustrous string writing gave way to simple, but poignant single triangle, evoking the distant bells. It really was a moment of wonder.

Keenlyside, as Prospero, and Langridge, as the King of Naples, characterised their parts well. Sadly, in this score, Miranda and Ferdinand are fairly wooden caricatures, without much depth. Spence spiced his singing with vivid nuance. Royal merely had to look beautiful. The genres, too, were well played, and the chorus was remarkably precise, in true Covent Garden tradition. Apart from Sieden, the revelation of the evening was Bostridge’s Caliban. In recital, Bostridge can be unpredictable, but in opera, when he’s consciously playing a “part”, his inhibitions evaporate. Here, he inhabited Caliban instinctively, creating him as a complex, sympathetic and deeply interesting figure. Now there’s a subject for an opera…? Vocal pyrotechnics and emotional range come naturally to Bostridge, inspiring great things from Hans-Werner Henze.

Should I have given the impression I didn’t like this opera, that isn’t the case. I learned it initially without having seen it in production, so my approach is accordingly influenced by it “as music”. This remarkable, atmospheric performance illuminated it for me immeasurably. This production has already been mounted in Strasbourg, and Copenhagen. Don’t miss it if you get a chance.

© Anne Ozorio 2007

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