Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 3 / 18 January 2018

Astonishing lyricism


Ades' 'The Tempest' is out of the teapot

Composer Thomas Ades. Photo: Sheila Rock
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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.

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