The Magazine

‘Tempest’ for Moderns

Sandy was not the only storm to arrive in Manhattan.

Nov 12, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 09 • By KELLY JANE TORRANCE
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New York
A premiere at the country’s foremost opera company always meets with a certain level of excitement. But the man in the orchestra section two seats past me became positively giddy as he scanned the program notes before the curtain rose on The Tempest late last month at the Metropolitan Opera.

Ariel makes her appearance

He first nudged his wife, informing her that the work they were about to witness was of recent vintage. Then he discovered that its composer was still alive. Finally, to his utter astonishment, he exclaimed, “The composer was born in 1971!” His wife noted that this made him a contemporary of theirs.

It’s hard to imagine settling into the Met’s plush (and pricey) seats without an idea even to which century the next three hours of music belongs. But it seems a not insignificant number of people hadn’t realized what they were getting themselves into when they purchased tickets for Thomas Adès’s The Tempest. Expecting, perhaps, something along the lines of the tender arias of Mozart, the moving duets of Verdi, or the light comedy of Rossini, they got a little of each—a suggestion of a long tradition within a new idiom that at once honored it and insinuated that it was no longer enough. There was a noticeable number of empty seats when the third act began, after intermission. A pair of young women fled in the four-minute break between the first and second acts. I suspect that many of the deserters weren’t aware how new The Tempest was, and felt that modern opera was not for them. Which is a shame, for The Tempest is a work of great beauty, something missing from much of the musical scene today. Contemporary opera doesn’t get much better than this.

Thomas Adès is the former Britten professor of composition at the Royal Academy of Music, and it’s hard to think of a title that would be more apt. Like his fellow Englishman Benjamin Britten, Adès could have made a career as either a conductor or a pian-ist. Like Britten, Adès is a versatile composer who’s written orchestral, chamber, choral, and solo music, as well as opera. The two were almost the same age when their first real operas premiered, 60 years apart: Britten was 31 when Peter Grimes opened at Sadler’s Wells in 1945; Adès was 32 when he conducted The Tempest at the Royal Opera House (which commissioned it) in 2004. Even these operas have similarities: The passacaglia in Peter Grimes is often heard on its own, while the penultimate scene of The Tempest, the final reconciliation, is in the 17th-century form. Peter Grimes was the first in a series of successes that made Britten the most important opera composer born in the 20th century. The Tempest attests that Adès might one day compete for the title. 

With this single work—very different from his jarring 1995 chamber opera, the deft Powder Her Face—the 41-year-old Adès has already surpassed the celebrated (and overrated) Carlisle Floyd, an American. Both Britten and Adès, quite naturally, found inspiration for dramas in their nation’s—indeed, the world’s—greatest dramatist. Britten set Shakespeare’s words to music in his 1960 A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But Adès’s The Tempest is missing the play’s most memorable lines. 

The librettist, Australian-born London playwright Meredith Oakes, has transformed the text. Ariel’s rich line Full fathom five thy father lies is now the decidedly more pedestrian Five fathoms deep / Your father lies. And We are such stuff / As dreams are made on doesn’t appear at all. The plot has changed, too. Shakespeare’s Prospero finds satisfaction in restoring the proper order of things—and, of course, the play is about much else besides. Oakes’s Prospero has revenge as his only goal; the central theme is freedom versus slavery. Oakes does add some felicitous phrases here and there, as when the shipwrecked court feasts their eyes on a mirage Prospero has created and cries, Bizarre beyond belief! But it’s rarely wise to tamper with a master, and Oakes has produced a particularly plodding book. Shakespeare’s verse is carefully enjambed; Oakes’s lines usually end at a full stop.

Yet this isn’t William Shakespeare’s Tempest, as a modern moviemaker might title it. It’s very much Thomas Adès’s Tempest. Though Prospero mourns losing both his library and his liberty (which we understand are intimately connected), words are not the focus here. In fact, although sung in English, Adès’s most spectacular creation can barely be understood. What’s primary, throughout the opera and at its end, is a surprising consonance: sometimes earthy, sometimes otherworldly, but always elevating the total work above its newer, blander source.

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