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Adès, Thomas: The Tempest (CD) EMI/ROH 2007

Thomas Adès: The Tempest

Ades The Tempest CD

Winner in the Contemporary category of the 2010 Gramophone Awards. Click logo for details.

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Winner of the Composer of the Year category in the 2010 Classical Brit Awards. Click logo for details.

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Editor’s choice, Opera News October 2009
Disc of the Month, Gramophone, August 2009


Simon Keenlyside’s “vocal expression  is wonderfully nuanced, dramatically enthralling as well as emotionally touching…” Opernglas
“…Simon Keenlyside as a noble, perplexed Prospero…” The Observer
“…Simon Keenlyside’s no-nonsense Prospero, a force to be reckoned with from the very start of the opera, is outstanding” The Guardian
Disc of the week, Globe and Mail

Conductor: Thomas Adès

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
Orchestra and chorus of the Royal Opera House

Recorded: Live in March 2007 at the Royal Opera House, London
Released: 15 June 2009
Label: EMI Classics
Code: 6952342
Number of discs: 2

From the EMI website, March 2009

EMI Classics announce the release of the world première recording of ‘The Tempest’ by Thomas Adès, recorded in association with BBC Radio 3 at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in 2007, conducted by the composer. The cast includes Simon Keenlyside, Cyndia Sieden, Ian Bostridge, Toby Spence, Kate Royal, Philip Langridge, and Stephen Richardson, many of whom took part in the critically acclaimed world première three years earlier.

The libretto by Meredith Oakes is based on Shakespeare’s play of the same name. Rather than transfer Shakespeare’s words directly, Oakes has reduced much of the text to its essence, and produced a compact libretto with the bulk of the text presented in the form of rhyming couplets. In the words of Alex Ross, “Adès wisely assigned the libretto to Meredith Oakes, a seasoned playwright who had the guts to rewrite Shakespeare … Veterans of contemporary premières will be relieved to find that for once a librettist and a composer have taken charge of a sacred text and made it their own. This libretto is designed to be sung.”

“In the three years since its première, Thomas Adès and Meredith Oakes’s 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’s 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.” – The Independent

What the critics say

B Kempen, Opernglas, June 2009

Translated by Petra Habeth

The world premiere of Thomas Adés’ first feature-length opera “The Tempest” based on a libretto by Meredith Oates from the corresponding drama by William Shakespeare, was a huge success with the public in 2004 at the Royal Opera, London. A large part of this [success] belonged to the Tom Cairns’ staging which put a high tech vision of laser effects, magic illusion and video sequences on stage and framed Adès’ atmospheric score in electrifying pictures. Three years later it was possible to engage for the restaging a nearly identical cast to the opening night and EMI has published a recording of these performances as an audio-cd. If you have the direction of Cairns still in your mind you might be curious whether the work of Thomas Adés would be able to thrill without the suggestive power of the direction and might speculate if a DVD presentation would have been more effective. But this scepticism is almost baseless. “The Tempest” proves itself in this recording to be a round, (in itself) coherent and self-confident opera which is certainly able to be learnt from listening to it.

The overthrown king of Milan escapes with his daughter Miranda to a magic island, banishes the nature spirits and raises a  storm by magic which brings his enemies to his island. But the day of vengeance becomes a day of reconciliation, through the love of his daughter for the son of the king of Naples.

Simon Keenlyside uses tactics as king Prospero to bring out the fullness of his brilliant sounding, elegant Baritone. The differentiated  palette of his vocal expression  is wonderfully nuanced, dramatically enthralling as well as emotionally touching  and always based on a totally healthy resonating line.

The lovers Miranda and Ferdinand are played by Kate Royal  and Toby Spence lovingly and with feeling. Here sparks are flying, the chemistry is good. Philip Langridge is a noble, slim toned King of Naples. His royal household shelters the intriguers Antonio and Sebastian created by Donald Kasch and Jonathan Summers with disturbing coldness. The comic duo Triculo and Stefano with extreme casting Counter and Bass is safe in the voices of David Codier und Stephen Richardson. As true and faithful friend Gonzalo, Graeme Danby is pleasing with a warm and calm analysis. The conducting lies – as in the world premiere – in the responsibility of the composer, Thomas Adés and his style convinces. The orchestra holds and carries the singers but places striking emphasis on aggressive attacks, in lightly floating, fragrant  illusions of sound and interweaves diversified elements of the time-honoured opera tradition with modernisms.

The mythical creatures in this classical Shakepearean material are the air spirit Ariel who is banished by Prospero and the monster Caliban, the former ruler of the magic island. Only in these two parts you are missing the staging which is not at all caused by lacking voice qualities of the interpreters. Cyndia Sieden advances with breath taking soprano capers in extreme highs which make you speechless but her heavenly creature which is shown on the cover was in the live performance simply so impressively fantastic as that you miss it. And Ian Bostridge conveys with his so typically introverted aggressiveness, densely and intensively the tragic of the humiliated Caliban, but mere musically the part lacks the intensity which Bostridge in additional acting was able to bring.

Rupert Christiansen, The Telegraph, 10 June 2009

Rating: Four out of five stars
Thomas Adès’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s play, with its fine libretto by Meredith Oakes, has proved one of the most successful large-scale new operas of recent years. This vivid live recording is taken from performances conducted by the composer at the Royal Opera House in 2007, and it is magnificently sung and played: Simon Keenlyside makes an authoritative Prospero, Ian Bostridge’s Caliban tugs at the heartstrings in his radiant Act 2 aria and Cyndia Sieden is phenomenal as a stratospherically high coloratura soprano Ariel.

But don’t expect immediate gratification. The Tempest makes demanding listening – the score is often strident, edgy and noisy, especially in the tumultuous first act, and even with rebalanced microphones, the singers battle with the heavy orchestration. But patience yields great rewards, and the latter part of the opera is rich in sweetness and lyricism – notably a quintet of Straussian gorgeousness at the climax.

Fiona Maddocks, The Observer, 14 June 2009

For a composer still in his 30s, Thomas Adès (born 1971) is well served on disc, loyally supported by EMI, who in the past decade have released six CDs embracing most of his output, including his early Living Toys and his sex’n’scandal first opera, Powder Her Face. This latest is the world premiere recording of his second opera, The Tempest (2004), an altogether richer and more lyrical affair, commissioned by the Royal Opera House and here taken live from Covent Garden’s 2007 revival with help from Radio 3 and the Peter Moores Foundation.

Based on Shakespeare but reworked and condensed into three acts by librettist Meredith Oakes, the text is easily audible, with the sound balance slightly favouring the voices, but not detrimentally. Many of the outstanding cast created their roles in the original 2004 staging, including baritone Simon Keenlyside as a noble, perplexed Prospero, tenor Ian Bostridge as the strange, wretched Caliban and Cyndia Sieden as Ariel, leaping to her stratospheric high notes with ethereal agility. Her set pieces, such as “Five fathoms deep/ Your father lies” and “He and your brother/ Stare and shudder” beautifully capture the character’s supernatural, asexual nature. The flourishes and ornaments in the vocal writing have the feel of Monteverdi through a prism of modernity.

The final exchange between Ariel and the world-weary Prospero – “I’ll drown my book, I’ll break my stave” – is, properly, among the most affecting moments, preceded by Antonio’s bleak farewell, in even metre with a choked, low, woodwind accompaniment, (“You’ve won, I’ve lost”). This kind of musical characterisation runs through the work, more in the subtle style of Britten than in any more heavy-handed Wagnerian sense.

All the orchestral writing, expertly played, comes across powerfully, notably the storm music which roars into life at the start. Textures are luminous and clear in the bewitching prelude to Act III before the earthy, drunken arrival of Caliban, Stefano and Trinculo. Kate Royal and Toby Spence as the lovers Miranda and Ferdinand, who have a rapturous love duet at the end of Act II, and Philip Langridge’s cameo King of Naples are all luxury casting in this excellent recording.

Andrew Clements, The Guardian, 19 June 2009

Thomas Adès’s second opera was embarrassingly overhyped at its Covent Garden premiere in 2004, and rather more objectively assessed when it was revived with much of the same cast three years later. This fine recording stems from the revival, and confirms that while The Tempest is certainly one of the more distinguished new British operas of recent years, it’s by no means a flawless achievement, nor one that breaks radically new ground. The dramatic pacing sometimes falters, the comic characters get a bit too much stage time, and while Meredith Oakes’s libretto consciously distances itself from Shakespeare’s text by paraphrasing it in rhyming couplets, it seems to rely on a collective memory of the original for much of its dramatic power.

Peter Grimes or even The Mask of Orpheus it isn’t then, but the best of The Tempest is still quite special. Adès’s score creates precise musical worlds for each of the protagonists, whether it’s the helium-high soprano writing for Ariel, the gruff, matter-of-fact assertiveness of Prospero (which perhaps undervalues the nobler, poetic side of the character), or the smoothly moving innocence of the music for the lovers Miranda and Ferdinand. He also creates moments of breathtaking beauty in set pieces such as Caliban’s purely tonal (A major) aria in the second act, the love duet and quintet of reconciliation in the third, and the luminous passacaglia that steers the opera to its radiant end.

Performances are almost all first rate. It’s a measure of the strength of the mostly British casting that singers of the quality of Stephen Richardson and Jonathan Summers take some of the smallest roles. Simon Keenlyside’s no-nonsense Prospero, a force to be reckoned with from the very start of the opera, is outstanding, and it’s hard to think of another singer who could manage the stratospheric writing for Ariel more effortlessly than Cyndia Sieden. Ian Bostridge’s Caliban, Philip Langridge’s King of Naples, Kate Royal’s Miranda and Toby Spence’s Ferdinand are excellent, too. It’s a fine production, which does full justice to Adès’s sometimes remarkable work.


Disc of the Month
John Allison, Gramophone, August 2009

An alluring Adès score and a first rate cast make this Tempest unmissable

Thomas Adès’s “ism”-defying output gains in variety all the time, but whatever he comes up with in the future it is likely that The Tempest will remain one of his most significant achievements. Premiered at Covent Garden in 2004, and recorded here at the revival two years ago, Adès’s second opera succeeds where most Tempest adaptations have failed: in adding something to Shakespeare’s magical and inherently lyrical scenario. From the tornado-like prelude to Ariel’s stratospheric yet ethereal “Five fathoms deep” the music illuminates rather than merely illustrates the drama. It may not be a flawless masterpiece – Meredith Oakes’s otherwise musical libretto relies on some clunky rhythms and Adès could occasionally have tightened his writing, notably in Act 3 – but it is one of the most viable and stageworthy of modern British operas.

Most of this recording’s cast created their roles, and the performances have a lived-in feel. Yet even the newcomer, Kate Royal as Miranda, is fully inside her part and sings alluringly; admirers of the soprano will be pleased to have her auspicious Covent Garden debut preserved on disc. For many, the most memorable writing in The Tempest comes attached to Ariel’s vocal high-wire act. Few coloratura sopranos are able to dispatch it like Cyndia Sieden, whose sound lends special colour to the performance, and it is hardly her fault that her stratospheric flights leave the words almost unintelligible.

Simon Keenlyside, on the young side as Prospero, mixes brain and baritonal brawn in his characteristically charismatic way. Ian Bostridge sings unstintingly as a wonderfully weird Caliban – and his Peter Pears-ish voice strengthens the impression of the character as an outsider. His younger tenor colleague, Toby Spence, is a fine Ferdinand. Philip Langridge’s King of Naples and Jonathan Summers’s Sebastian represent luxury casting in a recording made under the composer’s own baton. The playing of the Covent Garden orchestra is another luxury – no, a necessity, given the brilliantly conceived and demanding orchestral aspect of this piece.


CD of the Month
Gramophone, August 2009

After a number of decent attempts in recent years, the Royal Opera House finally hit gold with a new opera – one that will surely stand the test of time, that deepens with every hearing and which gets a worthy first recording here. The performances, which derive from the (somewhat) revised 2007 revival, are in all ways stronger than the premiere.

The casting assembles some of the finest performers around today. Simon Keenlyside is a rock as Prospero, eaten up with fury at his unfair treatment and taking it out in turn on Ian Bostridge’s devious Caliban. Kate Royal is radiant as Miranda, Stephen Richardson a knockabout Stefano, Philip Langridge a dignified, sad King of Naples. Cyndia Sieden finds Shakespearean depth in a role that starts so stratospherically high as to be unintelligible. As the tessitura gradually comes back to earth, so her Ariel becomes ever more human, a flesh and blood creature to be pitied and loved.

Adès ‘s own conducting drives inexorably the groundswell of lyricism that motivates this piece and unifies all the vocal acrobatics. And if the opera is above all theatrical, there is everywhere the satisfying feeling of a show that has been well played in. Orchestra and singers are no longer, one feels, preoccupied with getting through it – but with creating living, moving drama.

Stephen Graham, Musicalcriticism.com, 1 July 2009

I was disappointed when I saw Thomas Adès’ much-admired Tempest on its second run at Covent Garden in 2007. A live recording (presumably a portmanteau made of excerpts from various dates on the run) has been released on EMI to more acclaim, yet I remain disappointed.

The piece fundamentally misuses the genre of opera, as it does the Shakespearean source material. The action has been condensed into 3 acts, as one would expect in the opera house. More troubling, though, is how this tightening plays out in the libretto at a local level. The elementary problem of reshaping the text whilst doing justice to its spirit and its poetry is handled without delicacy or grace.

Meredith Oakes’ libretto abandons all the poetic expansiveness of the original – the locus of Shakespeare’s unmatched illuminations of the human spirit, where literature and language chafe at the sublime – in favour of banal rhyming couplets. Ferdinand and Miranda in Act 1: ‘I’m paralysed by him, I can’t command my limbs. Why must you be so savage? He’s not done you any damage.’ Caliban, the source of much wounded eloquence in the original, says things like ‘I can’t tell, I’m not well.’ Even at places where the change is more subtle a vastness of serenity is lost. Prospero’s final speech, the highlight of all of England’s gifts to the world, just comes across as perfunctory here (‘cities will perish, Palaces vanish, The globe itself Dissolve, Nothing stay, All will fade’). Instances like this abound.

Of course this may have been a very deliberate strategy. The point of setting poetry or drama in music is to transfigure that text with sound, and if five acts of thickly conceived poetic marvels doesn’t stand in your way, all the better. Clearly The Tempest, with its symbolic arcana and its delirious profundity, would seem highly alluring to a composer. But there’s a reason there hasn’t been a successful full operatic version before, and that reason, the swerve and span of the original, is merely ironized here to no great end. The text is a ghost in this version, heard only in some flickering wonders in the score.

The music occasionally boasts of the same vim apparent in some of the composer’s other music, such as his Living Toys. The overture blasts forth in harsh cross rhythms like a distant (more mainstream) cousin of the same section of Ligeti’s opera. Yet even there Adès falls short of the terrible sublime conjured by Sibelius in the storm prelude for his incidental music to the play.

Some elements of wispy, fluorescent dreams pass in to the orchestral music between scenes that evoke something of Shakespeare’s enchantments. Cheering memories of Adams (in the big inflected-minor chords), Birtwistle’s Punch and Judy (especially Prospero and Ariel’s menacing skipping repetitions of ‘haunt them, taunt them, goad and tease’ in the first scene of the second act), and Britten (the instrumental colouring and the enriched tonality throughout, especially in the introduction to Act 3), actually seem natural, and sit well in the flow. Ferdinand, Miranda and Prospero’s trio in the first act contains some remarkable writing for the voice, backed with vivid and eclectic orchestral colour. The love duet is powerful and devout with an undercurrent of doubt in the ensemble. The piano, glock and piccolo orientalism seduces in the final sections. Ariel’s heart-stopping verse to end scene 5 (with fluorescent hummings from orchestra) astounds. All of these sections are written with skill and conviction, and performed with flavour by the ROH band.

Yet the score is haunted, for me, by other music. The compositional voice is unresolved; it seeks the grand standing of pageant composition, whilst always trying to preserve something of the modern, something of the aporia of modernism. Compared to the composer’s own much more vigorous Powder Her Face (which echoes here in Ariel’s entry on ‘aaaah’, inventively post-figuring the Duchess’ ‘ah ha ha’ entrance in the earlier piece), The Tempest comes across as trying to be something it is not, something to too many people at once.

The vocal writing and its accompaniment are problematic throughout. There is little contrast in the style of the writing for the voice (which leans primarily towards strained arioso). More troublingly, almost every vocal utterance is shadowed in the orchestra with lines in rhythmic unison on various instruments. This technique can work well if done sparingly, particularly in an idiom such as this where the line can seem unhinged, but here it chains the singers to a particular expressive space they cannot break free from. Ariel’s aforementioned passage at the end of scene 5 is one of the few instances when a singer breaks free from this constraint, and the effect is revelatory. It would probably be too much to suggest that this bind symbolises Prospero’s power over the island. With or without any poetic justification, though, it really grates on the ear after a while. One more point on this; the delirious, paint-stripping tessitura in which Cyndia Sieden is asked to sing doesn’t succeed in conveying Ariel’s otherworldliness as, to my ears at least, all one hears is a human trying very hard to sound inhuman (despite the startling efforts of Sieden). Ariel’s words cannot be made out either.

The singing is impressive on this release though. Ian Bostridge’s voice has a dark lustre and an unusual abandon; he conveys real anger in ‘this island’s mine’, and is more lavish and expressive in one of the score’s highpoints, his ‘The island’s full of noises’ in Act 2 (backed by yearning, many-layered consonance in the harmonic writing). Kate Royal is secure in a difficult vocal role as Miranda, and her projection and presence overshadows Toby Spence’s sweet-voiced Ferdinand in the duet. Simon Keenlyside as ever completely inhabits and invigorates the character, here in all his gruffness and ambiguity. Despite one or two careless moments, he communicates the strange character of Prospero as well on disc as he did on stage. Their performances are matched by an orchestra clearly on top of the material, and sensitive to its many nooks and recollections (helped by the confident guiding hand of the composer as conductor). Yet the work lets them all down somewhat. Why was it written? To drag its composer up to the pantheon of big opera composers? All the mixed up ability and ambitions of Thomas Adès are evident in the impressive but unresolved slickness of his Tempest.

David Nice, BBC Music magazine, August 2009

Performance rating: Four stars
What, no DVD? Not for now, apparently; but here’s a challenge to access Thomas Adès’s biggest score to date without the luminescent visuals of the Royal Opera production. The luxury of a recording studio would have given this remarkable line-up of singers a chance to do their taxing, tiring roles more justice and to render the thousand nuances written into the vocal lines. Even so, I suspect the excellent Simon Keenlyside is not the baritone to manage all the full-pelt highs and lows of Prospero’s role – does one exist? Nor was Bostridge cut out to tackle the cruel above-the-stave fortissimos of raging Caliban. The more insane of Ariel’s yappings would tax a coloratura steelier than the soft-grained Cyndia Sieden; and even Kate Royal has problems with Miranda’s mid-to-upper-range tessitura in Act I (curiously the role was written for a mezzo).

Nevertheless everyone reaches out to the purple passages when Adès touches something rich and strange. Those include the evolution of the young lovers’ music from homages to midsummer Britten and Tippett to the heights of Act II, Ariel’s banquet and masque in Act III, and the ensemble-passacaglia which takes the ultimate centre of gravity from Prospero’s perfunctorily written farewells. Librettist Meredith Oakes’ bare phrasings of Shakespeare accompany a certain rhythmic stiffness in the vocal writing; the real glories rest with the orchestra. Though I can imagine the buffets being rendered more sharply than they are under Adès at Covent Garden, they are enough to ensure this score’s survival.

Tim Pfaff, Bay Area Reporter, Published 07/30/2009

Astonishing lyricism
Ades’ ‘The Tempest’ is out of the teapot
The book on Shakespeare’s The Tempest is that it’s the third rail of opera. Touch it, if you’re a composer, and you’re dead. That makes for good reading, but it’s a bad book. Closer to the truth is that, until now, composing an opera on The Tempest augured an end to your career as an opera composer. (The ever-sage Verdi shrewdly avoided it, along with The Bard’s other cosmic opera, King Lear.) Many have tried. Name one.

Then along came Thomas Ades, who only recently outgrew his Wunderkind pants to become, rightly, one of the most esteemed composers of our time – even outstripping his cultural importance as a practitioner of gay marriage – creating the first indisputably great opera of our century, and The Tempest, no less. Besides already having had a premiere (2004) and a revival (2007) at the commissioning Covent Garden, in a co-production that has already taken it to continental Europe, it’s had a second production at the Santa Fe Opera (2007). Ades’ Tempest has broken out of the teapot.

After an embarrassingly long wait for a work of such stature, EMI has finally issued a live recording of a BBC broadcast of the 2007 revival (from the performances of March 23 and 26), so people who make less than Wall Street moguls can afford to give the piece a spin. Let the opining begin.

I hope I live to see this Tempest onstage. It should have been released on DVD except that that might have pushed the release into the 22nd century. Audio only, Ades’ opera is everything I hoped and more, really, than I dared hope. My only fear for its future is the almost incomprehensible difficulty of the music. If you didn’t hear the stage and audience noise on this recording, you could be forgiven for thinking that human beings could not perform it – even with the extravagant amounts of rehearsal time available for Covent Garden premieres. But, oh, can they. And even outside the theater, they can take you to the heights.

But wait. Not that long ago, in 1985, Santa Fe Opera gave the premiere of American composer John Eaton’s The Tempest, with a libretto by Andrew Porter. A microtonal score that also made unconscionable demands on the musicians, Eaton’s Tempest had the right stuff to evoke Caliban’s island cum Prospero’s kingdom. Besides precipitating a real live storm – the kind only Santa Fe could offer, drenching the open-air opening-night audience – it unleashed music that has haunted me ever since. And it was the last I heard of John Eaton.

Probably the most talked-about aspect of Ades’ Tempest is his Ariel, a coloratura role so stratospheric (17 high E’s in her entrance aria) that it makes the Queen of the Night’s music seem ordinary and Lulu’s a Marchesi exercise. Cynthia Sieden, the American who is to date the only singer to have dared the part, gives one of those performances that make you slap your thighs (very, very quietly), but Eaton solved the problem of how to play this pre-Tinkerbell fairy more movingly. And even Sieden can’t do vocabulary up there.

Fast & loose

Probably the most controversial thing about Ades’ Tempest is Meredith Oakes’ libretto. To say it plays fast and loose with Shakespeare is to understate gravely, but it has a deft compression that amply compensates most of the “losses” from the original. It doesn’t come close to the poetry of Porter’s, but then not only does it not try to, it rather tries not to. It allows Ades to write music with rapier stealth and penetration.

Act I, which like so many opera first acts is largely exposition, musically and storywise, is tough sledding, Ariel’s sonic tattoo one of the few moments of sensory relief. But the resources of the cast – Simon Keenlyside as Prospero, Ian Bostridge as Caliban, Kate Royal as Miranda, and Toby Spence as Ferdinand, as dreamy a cast as imaginable today – never cease to amaze as they get both words and music across with shocking acumen (and almost audible sweat).

But by the time he’s reached the Ferdinand-Miranda love duet in Act II, Ades has tapped into veins of astonishing lyricism. It’s never “easy” listening because the music is so sophisticated, but it’s ecstatic listening even the first time. Without lapsing into any of the facile, false tunefulness of so many of today’s top-gun composers, Ades writes music that ravishes the ear.

Most amazingly, he nails The Tempest. Like Tristan, Parsifal, and Pelleas, it’s an opera based on texts no one really understands. In long stretches of all these works, if you stop to wonder, “What does this mean?” it’s over. Composers like Ades keep us from stopping as we approach the unspeakable mysteries.

Disc of the week

Robert Everett-Green, 4 August 2009

Rating: Four stars
Superb cast makes magic in operatic adaptation of Shakespeare
It’s enough to make a critic wish for a Canadian production

There’s too much music already in Shakespeare for him to be a good librettist, though Britten made him seem like one in A Midsummer Night’s Dream . For his operatic adaptation of The Tempest , English composer Thomas Adès respectfully threw out the play’s iambic pentameters, and set a brisk poetic paraphrase by playwright Meredith Oakes. The result is probably the most satisfying English opera of the past 20 years.

The bright instrumental turmoil of the opening music tells you that this is an opera about magic and disruption, forces that Adès tempers with a humane, transparently lyrical idiom. This is heard most fully from the lovers Ferdinand and Miranda in their act two duet, but also, strangely enough, from Caliban, when he tries to calm the shipwrecked court in the opera’s longest stretch of conventional tonal harmony. Caliban is sung by a lyric tenor (Ian Bostridge), though whenever grostesquerie is openly called for, Adès follows Purcell and reaches for bassoons and snarling brasses.

A lot has been done to keep the words clear, both in Oakes’s laconic text and in Adès’s homophonic counterpoint, in which a web of instrumental voices is made to line up in even chordal rows. But when Ariel (soprano Cyndia Sieden) sings, her ultra-high part makes comprehension nearly impossible. Her quiet, stately Five Fathoms deep is the most sublime thing in the opera, but I couldn’t understand a word of it without the text in hand.

The metaphoric link between the storm and Prospero’s hunger for revenge runs through the opera and infects Ariel’s music too, as the ethereal spirit clamours for freedom. The clowns Trinculo and Stefano sing in pedantic counterpoint, later joining in a canon with their new admirer, Caliban. The reconciliation of the moving final scene occurs, suitably enough, in a dignified passacaglia, whose repeated wave-like strains wash away Prospero’s bitterness.

Adès (who conducts) and the Royal Opera have assembled a superb cast for this live recording of the 2007 revival production, including baritone Simon Keenlyside (Prospero) and tenor Philip Langridge as the King of Naples, whose superb lament for his lost son is accompanied by slow dragging strings. This terrific opera has already been done in London, Strasbourg, Copenhagen and Santa Fe, and is on the Metropolitan Opera’s agenda for 2012. Isn’t it about time we had a Canadian production?

Roy C. Dicks, News & Observer, 20 September 2009

‘The Tempest’ has staying power
“The Tempest,” by British composer Thomas Adès, is one of the few modern operas to have some staying power. It premiered at Covent Garden in 2004 and returned in 2007, after three international productions. It’s also on the Met schedule for 2012. Opera fans can judge for themselves with EMI’s new release compiled from live performances in the 2007 run.

Adès paints the landscape of Shakespeare’s island as forbidding and mysterious, his lean style somber throughout. The vocal lines are often jagged and deliberately paced, although there are a handful of set pieces that catch the ear — Ariel’s high-flying coloratura entrance (the amazing Cyndia Sieden), Caliban’s radiant welcome to the shipwrecked visitors (a clear-voiced Ian Bostridge), and the Act II love duet between Ferdinand (Toby Spence) and Miranda (Kate Royal), with its joyous, fluttering surge.

Simon Keenlyside adds authority as the wise Prospero, and Philip Langridge’s King of Naples sings movingly of the son he thinks is dead. Act III has a beautiful, wafting quintet and a sweetly melancholic finale, especially as conducted by Adès.

The music often brings Benjamin Britten to mind, but its regularly measured rhythms and unrelenting bleakness becomes wearing over its two-hour playing time, despite the effectiveness of individual sections.

Christopher Ballantine, Opera, October 2009

Though only five years old, Thomas Ades’s The Tempest already occupies a special place in contemporary opera. Critically acclaimed at its premiere at the Royal Opera House in 2004 and at its performances in Copenhagen, Strasbourg and Santa Fe during the next three years, the work has also won considerable support among audiences-a remarkable feat given the difficult, some might say rebarbative, nature of Ades’s modernist idiom. Now we have a remarkable recording-the opera’s first; it’s likely to win new admirers to the work, as well as to deepen the appreciation of those already convinced of its extraordinary qualities. The result of a collaboration between EMI Classics and BBC Radio 3, it dates from 2007, when, with many of the original cast, the opera was revived at Covent Garden.

It’s a mistake to approach this work as an operatic setting of Shakespeare’s play. On the contrary: though the libretto by Meredith Oakes springs from the play, it’s a free adaptation, having been abbreviated and rewritten from Shakespeare to become a singable, audible text for an opera running at less than two hours. Oakes’s accomplishment is very considerable, even if her rhyming couplets occasionally make one wince. Her libretto provides the basis for a musical score of enormous versatility, one that both expresses and builds upon the dramatic tensions at the libretto’s heart, in music torn between a muscular corporeality and a luminous evanescence.

From the very outset-a tempestuous orchestral prelude that is original in conception and brilliantly executed-one is struck by the freshness of Ades’s musical imagination. Long, marvellously structured paragraphs provide ample space for the development of colours and textures of  real invention. Whole sections of music offer a rare and quite magical sense of enchantment-and aptly so, given the forces at play in the drama. In some scenes (the ‘Friends don’t fear’ scene in Act 2, for example), a soaring, passionate lyricism holds sway. Other scenes are borne along by wonderfully stirring love music: as such, the long episode at the end of Act 2 is the first moment, but certainly not the last, at which the corporeal and the evanescent seem to merge, or to be transcended. Significantly, that scene grew out of one in which the music was carried by a dark, grim undertow. Binaries of this sort are precisely what is at stake in the opera, and towards the work’s end they are recast as reconciliation: the scenes of forgiveness and return in Act 3 movingly take on the ritual character of a steady, nobly-paced processional. This sounds more abstract than it is: in fact, the drama is deeply human, its most vulnerable and tender moments underscored by disarmingly beautiful homophonies.

In the main, the performances are hugely impressive. As compositional invention, Prospero is the most striking and demanding of the male parts; Simon Keenlyside is equal to the challenge, and offers a powerful, commanding performance. With a voice both young and sensuous, Kate Royal is a fresh, radiant, passionate Miranda. Ian Bostridge is splendid as Caliban. But it’s Ariel who has some of the work’s most rapturous music. With a stratospherically high tessitura and sudden, gravity-defying leaps and descents, the role is indeed out of, or beyond, this world. And it demands a singer with some superhuman abilities-which the pure-voiced, ethereal-sounding Cyndia Sieden has in abundance. In a triumphantly virtuosic performance, she executes the part to perfection, and with consummate ease.

Toby Spence’s Ferdinand is certainly youthful and arduous; but as the suitor who sweeps Miranda off her feet, he strikes me as somewhat implausible, sounding a little too much like a laureate of an English cathedral choir. Among the cameos, Philip Langridge and Donald Kaasch make the roles of King Alonso and Antonio fully their own. The conductor is Ades himself, and he gets from everyone – chorus and orchestra included – performances as confident, committed and eloquent as we are likely to hear. With on stage movements sometimes audible, and an applauding audience, there’s no mistaking that this is a live performance. But this is never intrusive; and one is left to marvel at a live event so unfettered and yet so blemish free, as well as at the recording engineers’ technical feat of ‘canning’ a live performance with such clarity, yet without sacrifice of spontaneity or warmth.

Fine as the singing is, perhaps my only real disappointment, in an opera dominated by males, is that the differences in the grain of the men’s voices are rather too limited not just in this production, but compositionally as well. For both dramatic and aesthetic reasons, I wished for particularities of character to be represented more sharply in the vocal writing, as well as – among the cast – in differences of vocal timbre and performance style. The libretto is packaged with the discs, but appears not to be available if one chooses instead to download the release.

Editor’s Choice

Joshua Rosenblum, October  2009 , vol 74 , no.4

O Brave New World

Thomas Adès leads the first recording of The Tempest, his transcendently beautiful opera based on Shakespeare’s play.

Thomas Adès’s much-anticipated opera of The Tempest had its world premiere at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, in 2004. Covent Garden revived Tom Cairns’s staging of the opera in March 2007 with most of the original cast members, and this EMI Classics debut recording springs from that production, which included some revisions to the original score. Adès (b. 1971), a fascinating, wholly original composer who seems to thrive on his own unpredictability, confounded expectations yet again with a moving, deeply felt piece, which, though it bears his unmistakable hallmarks of brash irreverence and brilliant iconoclasm, also has the courage to be simple, direct, warm and — yes — transcendently beautiful when called for.

Instead of appropriating Shakespeare verbatim or with abridgment, librettist Meredith Oakes has constructed pithy, Shakespeare-derived verses of her own. To her credit, her compact text is much more singable and gives the composer plenty of room to flower, even though her ostensibly rhyming couplets are riddled with false rhymes. The lack of precision is distracting, even if the streamlining of the text is impressive.

Not all of The Tempest is easy to listen to; extended passages are dense and uncompromising. Yet as Shakespeare’s boisterous characters move toward their ultimate destinations of forgiveness and love, so too does Adès’s score gradually take on the comforting glow of poignancy and tonal warmth. Caliban’s “Friends don’t fear” (derived from Shakespeare’s “Be not afeard”) is pure, serene A-Major. Arising from the dissonant thickets that have preceded it, this deployment of diatonic harmony is as much of a dramatic shock as the use of blaring discords would be in the hands of a different composer. As the native man-beast Caliban, the refined yet adventurous tenor Ian Bostridge soars grandly in this aria but calls up startling menace elsewhere, to great effect.

Adès has outdone himself in his rendering of Ariel, the island sprite, as a whacked-out coloratura soprano, Mozart’s Queen of the Night put through a blender. Cyndia Sieden manages the Olympic-caliber vocal athletics, which are just as challenging musically and intervallically as they are in terms of register, which is vertiginous. Sieden’s mastery of a role whose difficulty seems to be gleefully deliberate is jaw-dropping. True, ninety percent of her words are incomprehensible, but this is the composer’s fault, not hers. For her “Five fathoms deep” aria (from Shakespeare’s “Full fathom five”), Adès slows Ariel’s hyperkinetic pace down to a dirge, with each syllable sustained for several beats. The opening intervals are preposterous, starting on D, leaping up an octave and a step to high E, then down two octaves and a half step to D-sharp. Gradually, however, the melody becomes less angular, the harmonies turn ethereal, and the aria becomes a truly extraordinary siren call, hypnotic and captivating.

Prospero, the exiled Duke of Milan who conjures the eponymous tempest and shipwrecks his enemies on the island, has (dare one say it?) more of a dramatic arc in Adès/Oakes than he does in Shakespeare, where he is more godlike in his machinations; here, he has less control over events and is angered when thwarted. Simon Keenlyside, for whom the difficult role was written, is just as convincing in Prospero’s frustrated rages as he is beneficent in his forgiveness. As his daughter Miranda, soprano Kate Royal delivers an exquisite aria in the first scene that is the first ray of sunshine in the score. Later, Royal joins Toby Spence (Ferdinand) for a love duet of Straussian rapture, but with dissonant interpolations from woodwinds and trilling violins, signaling obstacles yet to be overcome.

As Alonso, King of Naples, Philip Langridge grieves over his son Ferdinand (who he believes is dead) in an unutterably poignant aria laced with painfully penetrating chromaticism. The Act III quintet, a stately triple-meter passacaglia in which the King and Ferdinand are reunited, surges magnificently and caps the opera perfectly; this is the work of a mature artist, not an impetuous enfant terrible.

The composer himself conducts the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, which churns, lunges, erupts and shimmers with equal dexterity. Bear with Adès throughout the opera’s more forbidding passages; it’s challenging, to be sure, but the composer has a grand plan, and your close attention will be opulently rewarded.

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