« »

2007, London ROH, The Tempest

The Tempest


Composer : Thomas Adès
Librettist : Meredith Oakes
Venue and Dates : Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London
12, 15, 17, 20, 23, 26 March 2007
Revival of 2004 production
Conductor : Thomas Adès
Director/Designer : Tom Cairns (with Moritz Junge)
Sets : Tom Cairns
Costumes : Moritz Junge
Lighting : Wolfgang Gobbel
Choreography : Aletta Collins
Performers :

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

Notes : The Royal Opera House has produced a short video clip of Simon and Cyndia Sieden in this production in 2004.

Click here to play the video in Windows Media Player

Click here for details of a DVD recording of this production:

Ades: The Tempest, DVD, House of Opera, DVDCC1341, 2004

Click the photo for an Interview with the cast, 2004


See the “Scrapbook” for words written in 2006 by SK about this production and the revival in 2007

Article in Gramophone, 20 March 2007 (James Inverne)

EMI to release Adés’s The Tempest


Gramophone has learned of a deal between the BBC and EMI Classics to record and release Thomas Adés’s opera The Tempest. The work, with a libretto by Meredith Oakes, has enjoyed critical and commercial success both at London’s Royal Opera House, where it was premiered in 2004 and is currently being revived, and at the Santa Fe Festival, in Strasbourg and in Copenhagen. Of its latest Covent Garden revival, one critic commented that it was that rarest of things, a contemporary opera that is genuinely “back by popular demand.”

The BBC are to record the ROH revival for broadcast and EMI will issue it, probably later this year. When the BBC televised the original run, tenor Ian Bostridge (who plays Caliban) was indisposed and an understudy sang his role. It will be Bostridge, though, alongside fellow original cast members Simon Keenlyside (Prospero) and Cynthia Sieden (Ariel) and newcomer Kate Royal (Miranda), who will feature on the EMI set. Adés, Royal and Bostridge are all signed to EMI Classics.

Extract from an interview with Philip Langridge for MusicOMH


“This consummate artist took time out from his rehearsal schedule for The Tempest (he plays the King of Naples) to talk to us about his career and forthcoming plans.”

Thomas Adès, not only the composer but also the conductor of the current revival of The Tempest is someone else he has an enormous respect for. The London-born Adès has certainly achieved a remarkable amount, nationally and internationally, in his 36 years. “Yes, I could spit,” Langridge says laughing out loud “even now, I haven’t done anything like he has.” In addition to a second run of The Tempest, not so common with a new work, Adès has a major retrospective coming up at the Barbican shortly and it seems everything he touches turns to gold.

“I was thinking today in rehearsal, he’s a really nice man, very pleasant and he has this huge talent. I have to point out that he’s nothing like Britten, let’s scotch that straightaway. He really has his own voice. What Thomas does is communicate through his music. If you think about contemporary music, not that many people really communicate. The music for The Tempest may be difficult up to a point, but it has another quality – each character has a different way of singing. Four tenors and each one sings differently. Extraordinary. For me, what makes Thomas stand out is this ability to communicate. To that extent he is like Britten.”



Richard Morrison for the Times, 13 March 2007


The words “back by popular demand” aren’t often applied to modern operas, except perhaps in ironic jest. Yet popular demand, as well as thumping critical approval, has brought Thomas Adãs’s magical musical take on Shakespeare’s magical musical isle back to Covent Garden just three years after the Royal Opera premiere.

In the interim The Tempest, written by the English composer when he was 32, has been acclaimed on the Continent and in the US. It’s a genuine hit, and you can’t say that about many recent British operas.

Monday’s superb revival — with most of the original cast back, sounding even more assured than after the scrambled preparations in 2004 — confirmed what the premiere had suggested: that this work is an ingenious melding of the familiar and the startlingly original. That applies not just to Adès’s music but also to Meredith Oakes’s terse, tangy, rhyming rewrite of Shakespeare. As in Purcell’s Fairy Queen and Bernstein’s West Side Story, the Bard’s words get short shrift. And the plot, too, is subtly tweaked so that the love of the youngsters, Miranda and Ferdinand, much more overtly confounds the powers of Simon Keenlyside’s immensely sung, tyrannical Prospero.

But it’s the eerie, airy music that ravishes the senses and drives the drama forward. Here too there are recognisable things: old-fashioned arias; cunningly weaved ensembles — none better than a sumptuous Purcellian passacaglia of reconciliation and renunciation near the end. But they exist in new sound-worlds that define characters and contexts with diamond clarity.

Best of all, the music seems to bloom in symbolic reflection of the redemptive love seeping through the play, at least as interpreted here. After the jagged shards of brass in the storm, the baleful orchestral grunts under Prospero’s vengeful lines, and the bizarre, stratospheric squeaking of Cyndia Sieden’s brilliantly demented stick-insect Ariel, Adès conjures a succession of meltingly lyrical set-pieces. Underpinned by ecstatic string trills there’s a gorgeous lovers’ duet, radiantly sung by Toby Spence and Kate Royal, making an ardent if somewhat consonant-free Royal Opera debut. Then comes a beguiling jingle of bells for the banquet and a shimmeringly nostalgic solo for Ian Bostridge’s rueful Caliban (a wonderful creation, like some fading heavy-metal headbanger turned scarecrow). Finally there’s a wistful fading lullaby for Caliban and Ariel that poignantly evokes the feeling of little lives being rounded with a sleep, even if the actual line is never sung.

Tom Cairns’s production, played amid the glowing cubes, flying gymnasts and basking alligators of Moritz Junge’s surreal set, still looks look like a bad night in an Ibiza disco. But with fine supporting performances from Philip Langridge’s anguished King of Naples and Donald Kaasch’s wonderfully malevolent Antonio, and with the composer himself conducting what really did sound like Shakespeare’s “thousand twangling instruments”, this is a show which gives one hope that an art form as old as The Tempest itself has been dazzlingly remade for the 21st century.


Fiona Maddocks, Evening Standard 13.03.07

Adès proves he’s the real thing


Enthusiastically greeted at its premiere in 2004, Thomas Adès’s first full-scale opera returns to Covent Garden as an assured, fully matured work with many of the reservations evident on first hearing banished. This staging has also been seen in Strasbourg and Copenhagen, enabling it to find strength and voice. Crucially for the audience, too, the chance of a second hearing allows the work to be judged not on novelty but on enduring quality. Adès has tinkered only minimally with the score, excising a couple of bars. Tom Cairns’s elegant, surrealist production is still effective, with Moritz Junge’s designs providing magical simplicity, like an electrified Yves Tanguy painting.

The excellent cast is largely unchanged, led by Simon Keenlyside’s masterly Prospero and including Philip Langridge as a bereft King and Ian Bostridge, shape-shifted into an emaciated Grayson Perry, haunting as Caliban. Tony Spence’s Ferdinand and his new Miranda, Kate Royal, made the most of their sensuous love music. Cyndia Sieden repeated her stunning, silvery coloratura as Ariel.

Meredith Oakes’s libretto is unfussy and clear, with Adès adding lyricism and drama through vivid scoring, memorable for volleys of chorale-like brass and bewitching use of bells. The ROH orchestra, conducted by the composer, shone.

This revival coincides with an Adès festival at the Barbican and events in Paris, New York and Los Angeles. No longer the maverick boy wonder, this 36-year-old has proved he’s the real thing.


Simon Thomas for musicomh.com, 13 March 2007


Tom Cairns’ production of The Tempest is visually the most exciting production of a contemporary opera since Harrison Birtwistle’s Gawain on this stage in the early 90s. From the opening storm, with flying spirits and fantastical imagery, there’s a sense of magic throughout. The formidable line-up of British vocal talent (Keenlyside, Langridge, Bostridge, Royal, Spence) could hardly be bettered either.

The production is endlessly inventive with images seeming to spring out of Prospero’s magic book, a platform on which the action takes place. Ferdinand emerges from the pages of rolling waves and is then magically trapped in a red box. Act 3, following the interval, plunges us into a darker place, a lost world with tangled roots, dinosaurs and gargantuan prehistoric fish, as conspiracies * both serious and semi-comical – develop and threaten to unravel Prospero’s manipulations.

The cast is impeccable with, apart from Kate Royal who replaces Christine Rice as Miranda, most leads resuming their roles from the premiere three years ago. Although short of stature, Simon Keenlyside (Prospero) is always a commanding presence and I found there’s too much of the opera without him, his return always welcome. Miranda has some uncomfortably high material early on but it’s as nothing compared to that which follows for Ariel. Cyndia Sieden gives an extraordinary performance as the spirit. It’s hard to believe she’s actually singing the words that appear on the surtitles; rather it’s another language of sounds that we’re seeing translated.

Philip Langridge is full of despair as the King of Naples and Toby Spence suitably romantic in voice and looks as his presumed-drowned son. For a monster, Caliban (Ian Bostridge) is mighty lyrical and his Act 2 aria based on “The Isle is full of noises” is an utterly beautiful highlight of the opera.

Ferdinand believes he is the only survivor of the shipwreck, he couldn’t be more wrong. In this version, the entire court seems to have been saved and we have a chorus whose presence curtails much of the clowning of Caliban, Trinculo and Stefano in their early scenes, which is no bad thing.

The librettist is the Australian dramatist Meredith Oakes. Gone is the familiar iambic pentameter of Shakespeare and we now have a text, modelled on the original but much of it in half sentences with rhymes, or near rhymes, sitting often uncomfortably close together (“I can’t tell/I’m not well”). Famous speeches are carved up, recognisable in part and coming close at times to parody.

Adès’ score (conducted by the composer) describes a range of emotions, from the over-arching grief of Naples mourning his son, to the wide-eyed wonder of the lovers and the seething resentment of the banished magician Prospero. It plumbs the heights and depths of emotion and pitch, with some very low-lying notes for Prospero and hellishly high lines for Ariel.

The best music of the evening is saved until last, with the touching reunion between King and Prince leading onto the most ravishing quintet. There follows a very interesting solo for Antonio, performed with crystal-clear diction by Donald Kaasch, a mix of remorse and reproach, before Prospero cedes the island to Caliban, monarch of an unpeopled kingdom. The opera ends hauntingly, with the disembodied voice of the freed spirit Ariel gently floating away from somewhere high in the theatre.

This is an opera that is sure to please both connoisseurs and those new to modern works and it’s worth getting a ticket any way you can.


Rob Witt for classicalsource.com


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.


Andrew Clark, Financial Times 14 March 2007


A less than storming success

The term “Shakespearean opera” has a two-edged ring. Association with the Bard surely lends some sort of guarantee, or at least a template of character and thought, but examples of his plays translating into music are few. The plays are either so complete that there’s little for music to add, or composers are too reverential. Both apply to Thomas Adès’s The Tempest, which returned to the Covent Garden repertory on Monday, three years after it was unveiled there.

This first revival – the opera has in the meantime been staged in Strasbourg, Copenhagen and Santa Fe – is hugely successful on its own terms. Tom Cairns’s production, with its phantas-magorical colours, shapes and forms, seems even more dazzling than in 2004. Most of the original cast have returned, with gravitas enhanced by deeper acquaintance. Adès himself conducts a scorching account, and everyone benefits from having had more time than the first time round, when material was still being written up to the last minute.

So this revival – part of a month-long Adès celebration that began with last week’s Berlin Philharmonic visit to the Barbican – reflects well on the Royal Opera and goes a long way to masking The Tempest’s limitations. But it also allows for a more sanguine assessment than was possible at the time of the euphoric premiere.

Adès is such a darling of the music establishment, and so obviously more talented than his peers, that one almost feels an apostate to suggest he took a wrong turning with The Tempest. It’s as if, having blazed a trail with his early chamber-opera, Powder Her Face, and picked up a prestigious commission on the back of it, he caved in to convention – much like Mark-Anthony Turnage in his progression from Greek to The Silver Tassie. In Adès’s case it may have something to do with the fact that he had at least one false start with more progressive ideas before settling on Shakespeare’s play, which he musicked into a three-act grand opera.

No other composer has successfully set The Tempest. The music is already in the words; most of the action takes place offstage. Adès compounds the problem by slavishly following Shakespeare. He hasn’t used music to reinvent the structure or get under his characters’ skin. Prospero – the magician-dramatist who, in casting a spell over cast and audience, discovers his own limitations – becomes a sketchy Wagnerian archetype: we don’t feel for him, and so we don’t feel for anybody. Ariel is made for movement, but Adès makes the part static – and so stratospheric in pitch that we can’t hear the words. The Naples court isa mess: the comedy is flat, the choral writing old-fashioned, glaringly so at the start of Act 2. There are too many characters. Adès could have done with a Boito (Verdi’s librettist for Otello and Falstaff), though Meredith Oakes simplified his task with her fluent couplets.

The opera’s one out-and-out success is Caliban, a mystical character-part that the wonderfully liberated Ian Bostridge makes his own. The love music is stunning, as is the opening storm. And the quasi-Elizabethan timbre of the “magic” – glancing back to Britten and Tippett – is intermittently hypnotic. But intermittent inspiration is this Tempest’s story: it’s an opera groaning beneath the weight of its machinery.

Simon Keenlyside’s Prospero remains a powerful but opaque presence, handsomely sung. Cynthia Sieden repeats her pixie-like Ariel, and Philip Langridge’s King of Naples makes much out of little. I liked Toby Spence’s Ferdinand; Kate Royal’s Miranda, beautiful of voice and appearance, needs to loosen up. The whole cast is better than the parts written for them.


Matthew Westphal and Matt Blank for Playbillarts.com


When the Royal Opera House in London presented Thomas Adès’s The Tempest in 2004, it was one of the most successful world premieres of an opera in years. The entire run sold out; the reviews ranged from respectful and encouraging (at their worst) to downright thrilled; audience reaction was ecstatic. The production went on to similar success in Strasbourg and Copenhagen, and Santa Fe Opera presented its own staging last summer for the work’s U.S. premiere.

Now the Royal Opera is presenting a revival of The Tempest, a very rare thing for a new opera. While the beguiling young soprano Kate Royal, playing Miranda, is new to the cast, most of the principals have returned to the roles they originated: Simon Keenlyside as a commanding Prospero, Philip Langridge as a mournful King of Naples, Toby Spence as an ardent Ferdinand, Ian Bostridge as a tormented, poetic Caliban. And coloratura dynamo Cyndia Sieden once again sings the spirit Ariel, whose vertiginous music she has to practice two octaves lower. Tom Cairns directs his original staging, and the composer himself conducts the Royal Opera House’s orchestra and chorus.


Rupert Christensen, Telegraph 14 March 2007


The Tempest hasn’t lost it’s magic

Rupert Christiansen finds Meredith Oakes’ The Tempest is a box of rare delights In the three years since its première at Covent Garden in 2004, Thomas Adès’s The Tempest, to a libretto adapted from Shakespeare by Meredith Oakes, has enjoyed great success in Strasbourg, Copenhagen and Santa Fe – not bad going for any new opera.

This revival played to a packed house that listened attentively and applauded warmly. So is this a 21st-century masterpiece, destined to join the repertory? I think not. When I first heard The Tempest in 2004, I thought the score had been hastily completed and that the horribly noisy first act in particular needed fine tuning.
I gather that Adès has not, in fact, made any substantial revisions, but three years later, the music did strike me as less hysterical and more emotionally poised – the effect of calmed nerves or more sympathetic conducting?

However, I still think that the opening orchestral storm is a poor thing, lacking in the electric tension generated by Verdi in Otello or Britten in Peter Grimes, and that the use of a high coloratura soprano for the role of Ariel is more camp cliché than stroke of genius.
The love duet for Miranda and Ferdinand is merely soupy, and the comic relief from Trinculo and Stefano flat-footed.
Most crucially, I don’t feel that Adès manages to imbue Prospero with the Wotan-like grandeur that should give the opera its moral and emotional centre.

Yet the music revealed so many other felicities and riches that it was impossible not to be charmed. Caliban’s aria “The isle is full of noises” is magically haunting; the Brittenish gamelan that accompanies Prospero’s masque is a shimmering vision of exotic loveliness; the final quintet of reconciliation has the glow of the comparable episode in Meistersinger.
The Tempest may not be great opera, but it is certainly a box of rare aural delights.

And it’s hard to imagine a better case for the piece than the one made by this performance. Authoritatively conducted by the composer, in Tom Cairns’s busily energised and visually trendy production, it was blessed with a magnificent cast.
The tenors were particularly good: Ian Bostridge’s moving Caliban, Toby Spence’s ardent Ferdinand, Philip Langridge’s remorseful Alonso. Cyndia Sieden’s Ariel is technically amazing, but she can’t avoid sounding like Minnie Mouse. Simon Keenlyside repeats his anxious, watchful Prospero; it’s a hard sing for him, but he comes through it heroically.


Erica Jeal for the Guardian, March 14, 2007


Many composers have tried and failed to make an opera out of The Tempest – overcome perhaps by the musical magic that already exists on Shakespeare’s island. Not so Thomas Adès. Premiered here in 2004, his version has the potential to be one of the most enduring new operas of the decade. Tom Cairns’s production has already travelled to Copenhagen and Strasbourg, and the work received its all-important second new production, in the US, last summer.

If Adès’s Tempest offers a direct hold on the imagination, it is partly because this is, at heart, a deeply traditional opera. The score, conducted vividly by the composer, builds to memorable set pieces capped by a radiant quintet of reconciliation in the final act. It is Meredith Oakes’s libretto that does something initially more unexpected, paraphrasing Shakespeare’s lines so that they never become cosily familiar. Left unaltered, their rhythm might be subsumed by that of the music or might otherwise dictate the music so much as to make it redundant.

Much of the play is necessarily pruned, though not as much as it could be – the two comedy drunkards need to be more strongly cast than this if they are to be worthwhile. But Adès is not just interested in the humans: the most striking music in the first half, at least, goes to Ian Bostridge’s airy, intense Caliban and to Cynthia Sieden, who as Ariel makes something beautiful out of notes written at dog-whistle pitch.

Cairns’s production may prove less enduring. Poetic images – the fireflies that might just be red blips on a ship’s radar, the huge angler fish whose jaws hold the courtiers’ illusory feast, Ariel’s slow somersaults through the air – rub up constantly against the prosaic, in the form of a huge, white plastic slab in the middle of the stage. The courtiers are cramped together, but Simon Keenlyside’s bluff, commanding Prospero wanders unrooted, a king without a castle.

Keenlyside, Bostridge and Sieden return from the premiere, as does Philip Langridge, in fine voice as the King of Naples, and Toby Spence as Ferdinand; newcomers, including Kate Royal’s Miranda, acquit themselves just as well.

If you need proof that the hype surrounding Adès is more than just hope and expectation, you will find it here.

The Independent, Edward Seckerson, 14 March 2007


In the three years since its premiere, Thomas Adès and Meredith Oakes’ haunting re-imagining of Shakespeare’s The Tempest has marinated in the mind. It now has the bearing of a modern classic. With a second, or in my case, third visit, you really start to appreciate the ingenious way in which Oakes alludes to Shakespeare without necessarily quoting him. Then there is Adès’ instinctive feeling for the pulse of the drama, his unerring sense of the magic that may provide the key to “a brave new world” where the sins of the parents might not be revisited on the children.

Adès is like Prospero. His score is not governed by any expectations save his own. The wonderful quintet of healing begins with a kernel of melody so pure, simple and English that it might be John Dowland. The way it burgeons into something lofty and aspirational says more about the possibilities of new beginnings than anything I know in contemporary music.

Then there is the otherworldliness of the “five fathoms deep” sounds. The passage in which Ferdinand is washed ashore has the stratospheric voice of Ariel floating on a slow and sustained orchestral wash, beautifully complemented by a visual mix of projections and stage trickery.

It is seductive and foreshadows love music in which the voices of Ferdinand (the excellent Toby Spence) and Miranda (Kate Royal – a big star in the making) assume a rapturous chromaticism. But even that cannot compare with what Adès has in store for Prospero when he realises that he cannot rule the lovers’ minds. The recognition of their freedom gives rise to music of resignation tinged with a deep compassion.

With Simon Keenlyside’s commanding Prospero, the mix is hectoring and gently paternal by turns; Ian Bostridge’s Caliban inhabits a vocal style of baroque-like floridity. This is a contemporary opera with – surprise, surprise – arias. Only restless spirit Ariel is not grounded long enough to sustain one. He sings higher than a dog can hear. Cyndia Sieden should be paid endangerment money for her vocal pyrotechnics.

And when all humankind have deserted Prospero’s island, Caliban remains, now king of all he surveys while the distant voice of Ariel can be heard finding serenity in freedom at last.

From Bloomberg.com, Warwick Thompson, 13 March 2007


Royal Opera’s `Tempest’ Has Musical Magic, Beguiling Harmonies

It’s rare for a new opera to cause a storm at London’s Royal Opera. “Sophie’s Choice” was 4-1/2 hours of doldrums; “1984” was becalmed to the point of inertia. Thomas Ades’s “The Tempest” proved to be the hit that Covent Garden needed and was heaped with praise at its world premiere in 2004.

Ades’s beautiful opera has since been heard in Strasbourg, Copenhagen and Santa Fe, and has now returned to the Royal Opera for its first revival. It has grown leaner, meaner and cleaner on its travels, even if some dramatic problems remain.

Aurally, it’s gorgeous. Ades is an operatic Prospero who lavishes musical magic on his audience. The opening storm is breathtaking, with shrieking strings and woodwinds supported by thunderous low brass. His use of harmony — by turns comfortingly familiar and disorienting — is beguiling. The stratospheric and jerky coloratura writing for Ariel is ethereal and otherworldly.

There are moments of sheer lyrical warmth that never topple into romantic pastiche. Ades knows too how to let the orchestra create atmosphere and build tension. The appearance of a magical feast that turns into a terrible sea monster is accompanied first by tinkling bells and then by a ferociously noisy outburst.

Librettist Meredith Oakes reduces Shakespeare’s poetry to rhymed lines of four and five syllables. Caliban’s original speech, “The isle is full of noises, sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not,” becomes, “The island’s full of noises, sounds and voices.” It’s less beautiful, but ensures a manageable running time of two hours and 50 minutes.

Island Retreat

Oakes retains Shakespeare’s plot outline, which tells of the magician-scholar Prospero who lives on a desert island with his daughter Miranda. His brother Antonio, with the help of the King of Naples, has usurped Prospero’s dukedom. The magician causes a tempest that strands Antonio on his island, ready to face revenge.

The opening conflicts are musically well set up. Miranda questions the cruelty of her father’s storm in anxious, puzzled phrases. The monster Caliban, who lived on the island before Prospero’s arrival, howls his complaints in high, shrieking tones.

The dramatic problems arrive after the exposition, when too many narratives fight for space. Antonio’s conflict with the king, the king’s anger with his own wily brother Sebastian, Caliban’s pact with two drunken sailors Trinculo and Stefano to murder Prospero, Miranda’s love for Naples’s son Ferdinand — all these crowd upon one another, without enough musical differentiation to bring them fully alive. The result is dramatic lethargy.

There’s a beautiful quintet, tuneful and elegiac, which occurs after the plot has reached its crisis but, because of the lack of momentum, it feels like a gorgeously extractable set piece rather than an inevitable moment of forgiveness and resolution.

Plastic Dinosaur

Director Tom Cairns sets the work on a huge revolving book, surrounded by abstract shapes, light patterns and a silly plastic dinosaur. His use of neon is hard on the eye.

As in 2004, Ades conducts, though his leadership feels more polished and flexible. He speeds through the early fast passage with amazing drive, and pulls back for Ariel’s slow magical aria, “Five Fathoms Deep,” with a brilliant instinct for pacing.

The singers, many repeating their roles, are excellent. Elf- like Cyndia Sieden speeds through the high, angular coloratura of Ariel’s music with astonishing facility. Simon Keenlyside is an authoritative yet vulnerable Prospero. Toby Spence (Ferdinand) and Kate Royal (Miranda) are touching as the central lovers.

Ian Bostridge is a deliberately odd, awkward Caliban. The difficulties he has with some of the cruelly high top notes add to the pain of the role. The orchestra and chorus are in superlative form.

Extracts from a review by Anthony Holden for the Observer, March 18, 2007


An evening of Ariel acrobatics

A stunning revival confirms Ades as the world’s most exciting – and hippest – young composer

“For reasons best known to himself, Ades chose not to set the words of Shakespeare – which would surely seem the whole point of choosing to adapt one of his plays. Instead, he commissioned librettist Meredith Oakes to compress the work’s themes, and indeed lines, into pastiche, sub-Bardic rhyming couplets. First time around, I was all but alone among critics in finding this an insuperable problem with the piece – a barrier between the listener and Ades’s undoubted eloquence.

On a second hearing, after a decent interval, the problem remains – a sure sign that Ades has much better taste in music than words. Not the most voice-friendly of composers, his vocal lines merely underscore the dispiriting succession of false, often banal rhymes in the (much-needed) surtitles by dislocating the natural rhythms of vernacular speech.

Via his librettist, it becomes clear, he is meanwhile intent on relocating the heart of Shakespeare’s play. Ades’s Tempest belongs less to the world-weary Prospero, for all his magisterial embodiment by Simon Keenlyside, than to the wacky worlds of Caliban and Ariel, as sung by Ian Bostridge and the remarkable American soprano Cyndia Sieden. Both turn in stunning performances, the former sufficiently disguised to overcome his customary stage gaucheness, the latter required to pole-vault her way through uber-Queen of the Night coloratura leaping way above the stave.

Again, as in his orchestral works, Ades is testing his musicians to the limits of their expertise. And, this time, himself? The work climaxes with a quintet of reconciliation, as if to remind us that this story also hinges on the lovers Ferdinand and Miranda, winsomely portrayed by Toby Spence and Kate Royal. Ades appears to be boldly confronting the charge sometimes levelled against him of virtuosity at the expense of feeling.

If so, he does not quite succeed. It remains true, amid his eccentric vocal lines, that the finest writing in the piece is orchestral. From the opening storm, driven by brass, woodwind and flailing strings, via Britten-esque interludes, the imaginative staging of director-designer Tom Cairns succeeds more because of Ades’s orchestral atmospherics than his vocal pyrotechnics.”


George Hall, The Stage, 14 March 2007


Thomas Ades’s full-scale Shakespearean opera returns to its launching-pad two years after its initial production, having been seen in the interim in Strasbourg, Copenhagen and Santa Fe. It impresses as before with some fine music, especially in the third act, where a great chaconne seems to bind the whole score together. But doubts remain about the piece’s long-term viability, though fewer about this performance.

The composer conducts a score containing some vivid orchestral writing with confidence. Simon Keenlyside brings a sense of power and complexity to Prospero, though the character is not clearly established from a musical point of view. The same could be said of the musically bloodless Miranda and Ferdinand, scrupulously though the roles are sung by Kate Royal and Toby Spence. Cyndia Sieden once again astonishes with notes that take us beyond any known soprano range, but it’s surely a flaw that important words thereby get lost. Philip Langridge is a tower of strength as the King of Naples, though Ian Bostridge’s Caliban is vocally and visually squirm-making.

Librettist Meredith Oakes’ paraphrased text also creates a mixed impression. It’s clear but inevitably registers as dumbed-down Shakespeare. Tom Cairns’s production, designed by him in tandem with Moritz Junge, is a hit-and-miss affair, striking in places, at others visually undistinguished. This is certainly a major work by one of our finest composers but whether it has staying power remains to be seen.


Extract from a review by Dominic McHugh for musicalcriticism.com.


[Performance on the 15 March 2007]

“Whatever one thinks about Thomas Adès’ 2004 take on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, there is no doubt of the high quality and unstinting commitment of the cast. There are, indeed, five knock-out vocal performances, each of them bringing both musicality and a sense of the dramatic to the piece.

In the case of English tenor Ian Bostridge, I believe we witnessed his greatest operatic appearance to date – the performance of a lifetime, in fact. Rarely has this popular but sometimes two-dimensional singer thrown himself so wholeheartedly into a character as he does here with Caliban. And despite the occasional loss of intonation, it was literally thrilling to hear him sing with such a lack of restraint and such exciting tone.

Baritone Simon Keenlyside heads the cast as Prospero, one of the most complex and ambiguous characters in all art. I detected a darker tone to his voice, which enhanced his gravitas and bodes well for future appearances in Verdi’s Macbeth and La traviata; and he is, as ever, a most compelling and intelligent actor. His daughter Miranda is played by soprano Kate Royal, who is devastatingly beautiful and opened the evening in her scene with her father with some splendidly projected and exquisitely focussed singing. She promises to be an excellent Pamina when the Royal Opera revives The Magic Flute.

Two further English tenors also impressed. Philip Langridge is luxury casting as the King of Naples – a small part, but he imbues it with plenty of interest and the voice is as burnished as ever. And Toby Spence continues to grow in stature as Prince Ferdinand, being both vocally assured and even sensual in his duet with Miranda.”

“In all, it’s a five-star performance of a three-star opera, one which will surely never live up to the best of Britten (as some have claimed). Still, the cast really is worth the trip, especially with tickets at an absurdly cheap price (£4 to £50), and the company should be supported for their enthusiastic investment in new works such as this.”

Tim Ashley for Opera, May 2007

(Performance on March 12)

Historically speaking, musical adaptations of Shakespeare’s The Tempest have been most successful away from the opera house. Generations of composers have attempted to give concrete form to the magic of Prospero’s island, but those works that have maintained a place in the repertoire-albeit mostly on its fringes-have generally done so in the concert hall. One thinks of Sibelius’s overture and incidental music, and the fantasias by Tchaikovsky and Berlioz-the latter forming part of Lélio and somewhat regrettably rarely performed away from it.

Undaunted by musical history, however, Thomas Adès has refashioned the play to form his second opera, which was hugely admired when it opened at Covent Garden three years ago. I missed its initial outing, and my first encounter with the work came with the opening night of its revival. I am consequently unable to make comparisons with that now famous first run, but I confess to disappointment with it. It’s by no means a failure like Maw’s Sophie’s Choice – but nor does it strike me as being the masterpiece, flawed or otherwise, that many had led me to believe.

Its principal flaws lie, I think, in Meredith Oakes’s libretto and Adès’s response to it. Avoiding a direct setting of Shakespeare, Oakes and Adès have opted for a paraphrase of the play that slants its emphasis in favour of early-21st-century concerns. We are made acutely conscious both of the autocratic nature of Prospero’s power and of its limitations. The ambiguous silence maintained by the duplicitous Antonio in Shakespeare’s final scene has here become an explicit rejection of Prospero’s authority. Caliban, meanwhile, has been redefined as an abused outsider-visionary after the fashion of Wozzeck or Grimes. This reflects the interpretative potential latent within the play itself, though Oakes and Adès have also, unaccountably, jettisoned the shifts in gender polarity with which Shakespeare delineates the relationship between Ferdinand and Miranda. The role-reversing greatness of Miranda’s declaration to Ferdinand – ‘I am your wife if you will marry me’ – is conspicuous by its absence.

More problematic is Oakes’s versification. Irrespective of the text’s layout, which I have not seen, what we actually hear are four-stressed lines of varying syllable length. This is the basic metre of T.S. Eliot’s verse dramas, though Oakes, unwisely, limits its inherent fluidity by deploying end-stopped couplets. Given that Adès’s word-setting rarely strays beyond one note per syllable, we are left, throughout, with a persistent sense of rhythmic inflexibility in the vocal writing, which all too frequently sounds like a kind of monotonous declamation in common time, regardless of what is happening elsewhere.

Vocal interplay and dramatic contrast are consequently dependent on tessitura. Prospero’s normative-sounding baritone (finely sung by Simon Keenlyside) is offset by the high soprano Ariel of Cyndia Sieden and the tenor Caliban of Ian Bostridge. Bostridge’s Pears-ish tone strengthens the links, intended or otherwise, with Britten’s outsiders. Sieden creates an impression of unearthly magic through slow, sustained flights in the stratosphere, though the role, as written, makes the words unintelligible: we are at times in dangerous territory where surtitles are our only guide to what is being sung. The conventionally observed lovers, Ferdinand and Miranda, meanwhile, are tenor and soprano in Toby Spence and Kate Royal (though a mezzo, Christine Rice, sang Miranda at the premiere). Prospero’s shipwrecked enemies and supporters include Philip Langridge’s ditheringly elegant King of Naples (he has inexplicably lost the name Alonso), Graeme Danby’s Sarastra-ish Gonzalo, and Donald Kaasch’s very malevolent Antonio.

Ultimately, however, this is an opera that is driven primarily by its orchestral writing, which is where Adès’s main strengths as a composer have always lain. He conducts it himself, rather beautifully. Brass and strings are often seemingly opposed, the former designating Prospero’s authority, the latter the genuine magic of the island, which is never quite his to control. The evocation of Caliban ‘s vision, all fluttering strings and woodwind, is a thing of wonder, so that when he finally exclaims, ‘Then I wake and cry to dream again’, we do genuinely believe him. The climax of the piece is a quintet of reconciliation, cast in the form of a chaconne, which many have already found unbearably moving, though its impact derives in no small measure from the fact that the quadruple-stresses of the vocal lines at long last give way to insistent pulses in multiples of three.

The staging, meanwhile, by the director and set designer Tom Cairns, has something of the ‘rough magic’ that Prospero eventually abjures. Moritz Junge’s costumes suggest the 1950s. The opening – in which Prospero flies over a sinking ocean liner – is impressive, though its impact is spoiled by the fact that the ship then has to be winched upwards before anything else can happen. There are wholly convincing, eye-popping special effects as Ferdinand is washed to shore. Later, however, we suddenly find ourselves in Jurassic Park when a stuffed-looking dinosaur arrives on stage. For me, Adès’s The Tempest just doesn’t add up to a satisfactory whole, and I found myself wondering whether the best of it, like so many of its predecessors, doesn’t ultimately belong in the concert hall.

Penelope Turing for Der neue Merker (but written in English), April 2007

(Performance on 15 March 2007)

Shakespeare’s plays have inspired many composers to convert them into operas. Some are great. Probably the most recent is “The Tempest” by a young English Composer Thomas Ades. It had its world premiere at Covent Garden in 2004. Since men it has been seen in Strasbourg, Copenhagen, and last summer in Santa Fe. Now it returns to London as a first revival of the first production.

The opera is effective, highly professional and exciting. Ades’ music is fierce, colourful, but not romantic. He himself conducted a lively assurance, and was very dramatic with the magical storm of the first act – the ‘tempest’ of the title created by Prospero’s art. There were many other successes in this performance: the swift, effective production of Tom Cairns, who with Moritz Junge designed the abstract set which was superbly lit by Wolfgang Gobbel. And the whole cast sang and acted effectively with two star performances: Simon Keenlyside as Prospero and Cyndia Sieden as Ariel. Keenlyside’s Prospero is not the father figure, a kind of benign King Lear, but a handsome, attractive figure of early middle age, and he sings magnificently. Cyndia Sieden’s role is almost entirely coloratura and her tiny, elf-like figure makes Ariel a true, sexless spirit.

The only problem is that the play lacks dramatic action, and therefore one same [sic] is true of the opera. Once Prospero’s spells have brought his wicked brother, Antonio, the Kind of Naples and son Ferdinand and others to the island where Prospero and his daughter Miranda live in exile everything happens on the Island: Miranda and Ferdinand meet and fall in love, and after all the characters have learned to forgive and restore all ends happily. Kate Royal sings beautifully in the small role of Miranda and Toby Spence makes a romantic Ferdinand.

The success of the play lies chiefly in the charm or humour of the characters and the poetic beauty of Shakespeare’s words. Some of these words are in Meredith Oakes’ libretto, but much of it is uninspired rhyming couplets.


{ 0 comments… add one now }

Leave a Comment