- The Tempest, opera in 3 acts
Thomas Adès' 2004 version of "The Tempest" has been acclaimed as one of the outstanding operas of the new century, so it's a pleasure to have it available in such a fine recording, taken from the 2007 Covent Garden revival, featuring many of the principals from the premiere. Librettist Meredith Oakes has not only effectively distilled the play so that the opera lasts less than two hours without seeming overly condensed, but she has rewritten and simplified the text. Something is lost when Shakespeare's poetry is altered, but Oakes' verse, if more mundane, is easily singable and easily comprehensible. The change in Shakespeare's language may be the biggest hurdle for purists, but for those who can make the leap and accept the libretto as an independent work of art, Oakes' version makes strong and coherent dramatic sense. Much has been made the spikiness of Adès' music in the first act, with the implication that it was only in the more lyrical second and third acts that he hit his stride and found an aesthetic footing in his approach to the play. That may possibly be the case, but it's not an entirely persuasive explanation for the musical style of the act (which, in fact, contains moments of rhapsodic lyricism). In spite of the often-repeated critique, Adès did not substantially alter the first act for any of the opera's subsequent productions, suggesting that he was purposeful in his choice to begin the work using primarily a "difficult" musical language. The first act is largely about discord, even cruelty -- Prospero's vengeful creation of the storm to trap his enemies, the deceptions he visits on Ferdinand and the rest of the shipwrecked court, Miranda's confusion and disappointment at her father's behavior, Caliban's craven rants. As the opera progresses, Miranda's and Ferdinand's love prevails more and more, (and in Oakes' version, even surpasses Prospero's power), and the narrative blossoms with reconciliation, forgiveness, and generosity. The opera closes with surprising tenderness: Caliban is alone, amazed to finally be ruler of the island, with Ariel offstage, singing ecstatically, wordlessly, in her new freedom. The musical trajectory from discord and angularity toward the magical lyricism and delicacy that take over and suffuse the opera as it develops seems like an intentional compositional strategy that makes the ending all the sweeter and more cathartic. Adès makes some intriguing, counter-intuitive casting choices, most notably in the role of Caliban, which he sets for a high lyric tenor, sung here by Ian Bostridge. As Britten demonstrated with Peter Quint in "The Turn of the Screw," high lyric tenors can be plenty creepy. Adès doesn't exploit the menace or buffoonery of the role in a stereotypical way, but makes Caliban more sinister and pathetically wraith-like than oafish and bestial. Adès wrote a stratospheric part for Cyndia Sieden as Ariel, and it has been acknowledged as the soprano role with the highest tessitura ever written. There are moments where the text is intelligible, as in the gorgeously lyrical "Five fathoms deep," and when Ariel's poetry needs most to be comprehensible. At other points, the altitude of the writing allows for little more than virtuosic coloratura squeaks, which may well be the effect Adès was aiming for, and it certainly effectively differentiates Ariel from the human characters. The cast is consistently strong; Simon Keenlyside's Prospero, Kate Royal's Miranda, Toby Spence's Ferdinand, Philip Langridge's King of Naples, and Donald Kaasch's Antonio all bring their characters to life with musical and dramatic eloquence. The composer conducts the Orchestra and Chorus of the Royal Opera House in performances of dazzling virtuosity and color. The sound of the live recording is clean, with good definition and balance, and a minimum of extraneous noise. Strongly recommended for any fans of new opera.