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THE TEMPEST (Shakespeare/Oakes) Thomas Adès
world premiere, Royal Opera House Covent Garden 10 February 2004
and on BBC 4 TV 21 February

Libretto by Meredith Oakes, after William Shakespeare, set to music by Thomas Adès
Simon Keenlyside
(Prospero), Ian Bostridge (Caliban), Philip Langridge (King of Naples), Toby Spence (Ferdinand), Stephen Richardson (Stephano), Christopher Maltman (Sebastian) John Daszak (Antonio) Christine Rice (Miranda) Cyndia Sieden (Ariel) ROH Orchestra & Chorus/Thomas Adès (conductor)
Tom Cairns
– director/sets Moritz Junge – costumes/sets Wolfgang Göbbel – lighting Aletta Collins – choreography


Photos: Clive Barda

Pictures first, because from the press seats provided on a sold-out opening night for several of us critics, only a corner of the stage could be seen. However, from above the orchestra we could enjoy Thomas Adès' assured conducting and the response of the ROH orchestra, and the singing came up clear and strong.

This can only be a tentative reaction and the spell which an opera can cast is fragile and easily broken. The audience was enthusiastic, but I found myself disappointed by Adès' retreat from his earlier and more adventurous music, and especially by the slow pacing of all the word-setting which (with surtitles) gave us ample time to ponder the banality of Meredith Oakes' rhyming libretto, which often grated.

The composer did not have sufficient time to complete this major work to schedule unaided, and he needed to enlist a team of composers to help complete the orchestration! There may be some revision before the next presentation of this joint commission, and a revival at Covent Garden is likely.

The outcome to date is highly professional and seamless; easy listening music for opera-goers who aren't sure they like modern music, but not distinctively individual; its reputed subtleties may have passed some of us by. The singing was generally excellent, with Simon Keenlyside, Ian Bostridge, Toby Spence, Stephen Richardson, Christopher Maltman and Christine Rice all highly commendable. Cyndia Sieden's dazzling coloratura soprano shone as Ariel and Philip Langridge's King was considerately set to show off his ageing voice at its best. The orchestra played the new score confidently, but from our disadvantaged position there seemed to be little in it all of true magic or really fresh imagination to compare with, for example, Tippett's little Songs of Ariel and his Songs of Dov.

The Tempest will be broadcast 18 February (BBC Radio 3) and televised 21 February (BBC4) when I hope to revisit the opera - all six performances at Covent Garden are sold out! This production will be taken on to Copenhagen and Strasbourg.

For three thoughtful and more extensive reviews of this controversial première see Helen Elsom's for ConcertoNet and Melanie Eskenazi's on Seen&Heard on the Web, and Anna Pickard's in The Independent.

ADDENDUM (23 FEBRUARY 2004) I have now had three encounters with this generally acclaimed Royal Opera commission, undoubtedly a major operatic event on the world scene. We had a partial view from above the orchestra at Covent Garden; heard the BBC Radio 3 broadcast, and at home have seen the television transmission on BBC 4.

I remain unrepentant. It seems to me a poor translation of a magical Shakespeare play to a ponderous and misconceived operatic reincarnation. The surtitles at the Royal Opera House become sub-titles on screen and point the heavy, rhyming re-writing of Shakespeare's verse; the cast does its good best, but Cyndia Sieden no longer amazes once it becomes so apparent that she does not even attempt to articulate most of her words - an impossibility in the stratospheric tessitura demanded by Thomas Adès. The staging now takes its place on screen as tired video gimmickry, the lighting effects taking us into the familiar world of pop culture and quickly palling. The colours are bright and the stage machinery keeps things moving around, but it is all self referential and not conducive to conveying magic and mystery.

Things liven up with the arrival of the shipwrecked voyagers, and there is some mild alcoholic amusement, but the translucent red cage in which the feared-dead Ferdinand lives and sings of his despair is a poor image, and Miranda all too easily opens its door. The much admired lyrical scenes for Caliban and, later, for Miranda and Ferdinand failed to move us at home as in the opera house; the unvarying slow pacing remains a huge handicap.

There is a further considerable lift with the last act, by far the best, and the scene of retribution brought about by Prospero is a genuine coup de théatre, when the supposed 'manna from heaven' to succour the starving quarrlesome motley collection of shipwrecked mortals is transformed by supernatural magic into a sour and menacing vision, with allusions to the horrors depicted by Bosch in his moralistic allegories. The ending is pessimistic and bleak and, really for the first time, I was engrossed and moved by Pospero's relinquishing his powers and his spirit helper, less so though by Christopher Lemmings's depiction of Caliban (Ian Bostridge was indisposed for the televised performance) crowning himself King but patently unfit to rule even an unpopulated desert island. But still one was brought down again and again by the crass rhymes, which are all too much like the terrible English translations of foreign texts one sometimes has to endure on CD and with older classic operas on DVD; a situation which at times impels one to choose subtitles in another language, even if one's understanding of it is sketchy!

After spending some ten hours with Adès, Cairns, Junge, Göbbel & Collins, I look back with relief to a real contemporary opera experience. Family Matters is by my reckoning far more valuable and, I hope, a more enduring opera, time better spent (twice) during the same week, in the company of the familiar characters from The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro, brought up to date by Amanda Holden in their subsequent Beaumarchais history, and (at a fraction of The Tempest's costs) brought vividly to life at The Bridewell Theatre by the brilliant collaborative Tête à Tête team of Chadwick, Flood, Henry, Francis-Hoad, Olsen, Webb, Bankes-Jones, Meacock, Doubleday and their eleven expert musicians headed by Stuart Stratford. Details of Family Matters' national tour are at http://www.nataliesteedproductions.co.uk/tete-a-tete/FamilyMatters.html


© Peter Grahame Woolf