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.

The Tempest returned to Covent Garden three years after its 2004 premiere and has also been staged in Strasbourg, Copenhagen, and Santa Fe. Adès conducts his own work in New York, making his Met debut in a white T-shirt under a black blazer. For its Metropolitan premiere, Robert Lepage’s production should find the Canadian director some forgiveness for his recent staging of Wagner’s “Ring” cycle at the opera house. 

A huge chandelier in the center of the stage serves not just as set decoration, but also as transport, mood-setter, and plot device. In the first act, its sparkling magnificence is
the prime example of how Prospero, the usurped Duke of Milan, has tried to re-create the refined glories of home, including its La Scala opera house. In the third act, the chandelier reappears in a terrible guise, helping spectators onstage and off to register that the civilized look of Prospero’s new court was only a veneer.

A figure in white spins gracefully on the chandelier, then rises along with it. This acrobat is a body double for Ariel, who is creating the tempest that will bring Prospero’s enemies to the island where they’ve exiled him. Visually, the storm is a bit lame: People pop up from underneath a blue sheet. But Adès’s music certainly suggests a storm. 

Most important, this isn’t a caco-phony without form, as you might expect in a post-tonal opera. And the first solo sound we hear is also unexpectedly traditional: Miranda (mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard) asks her father if he’s responsible for the deadly gale with sounds of overwhelming loveliness. Prospero finally reveals to her how they came to be on the island—and his plan for revenge. They must suffer as I did before, baritone Simon Keenlyside’s Prospero declares, as the brass hints at the trials to which he refers. Keenlyside, who created the role, is a mesmerizing performer: His voice turns tender when he talks of Miranda. But it doesn’t stay that way for long.

Prospero, of course, is the protagonist of the production; but Ariel—and Audrey Luna, the coloratura soprano who plays the sprite—is the real star. As soon as the character speaks, Adès’s masterful writing makes clear that this wraith is fully formed. The role requires much movement, even with the help of the body double, and Luna steals the show. Adès has written a creation whose words are as difficult to sing as those of the Queen of the Night, and Luna made her Met debut playing that role in Mozart’s Magic Flute in 2010. She scores a bigger triumph here. Toby Spence, the tenor who created the role of Ferdinand (the prince of Naples who falls in love with Miranda), and who here plays Prospero’s murderous brother Antonio, has said that many members of the first cast had doubts that Adès’s new work could be sung. So Luna must be guarding her voice fiercely for the rest of the run. Most of her lines are in the very upper range that a coloratura is capable of singing. 

Some critics have complained that Ariel’s words, though sung in English, mostly cannot be distinguished without the help of surtitles. But as Charles T. Downey reported after a symposium in Santa Fe, “Adès explained that he viewed the character not as a human but as a spirit of the air, and that her language, magical as it is, would probably be understood only by Prospero anyway.”

The real magic in The Tempest comes in the brief, but repeated, duets between Prospero and Ariel. The contrast between the gloomy, grim baritone and the sprightly soprano is striking. But these strange duets owe their power not to that obvious contraposition, but to Adès’s contrapuntal writing. His maturity also reveals itself in the music of the only other singer of pure beauty, the Neapolitan king (nicely rendered by tenor William Burden). His laments for his lost son—What fish has made its meal on you?—give some much-needed sympathy to a decayed court.

The third act is something of a weak link in an otherwise sturdy show—although the jokes wear thin at the end of the second act, which has as many false endings as a Lord of the Rings movie. Indeed, it seems as if the work might completely fall apart until Adès bids farewell to the story and focuses, again, on making virtuosos of his singers. The well-
choreographed chorus of Neapolitans in their finery finds redemption through the madness to which Prospero has subjected them, and from which he finally releases them. The always-
dramatic Caliban (hardworking tenor Alan Oke) gets the last word. This low beast tries to sing in an upper register, but it doesn’t come off. Ariel echoes his confused cries—ending the opera, finally, on a high note.

The Tempest continues in New York until the middle of this month, and, thanks to the marriage of an old art form with new technology, Thomas Adès might finally enjoy the same renown here that he has in his native land. The Tempest will be part of the Met’s “Live in HD” series, transmitted live in high-definition to movie theaters across North America on November 10 (and shown again on November 28), before it makes its way to television and to DVD.

Kelly Jane Torrance is assistant managing editor at The Weekly Standard.

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