The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 15.0519 Tuesday, 24 February 2004
From: Martin Steward <
Date: Saturday, 21 Feb 2004 00:43:12 -0000
Subject: Thomas Ades - New Opera adapted from The Tempest
I attended a performance of Thomas Ades's new opera, "The Tempest", at
Covent Garden this evening. The work premiered last week.
Ades has a reputation as an astonishingly talented Wunderkind, and this
latest work will not disappoint his growing legion of admirers. This
Couperin-obsessed composer has produced a stunning score that shows a
love and mastery of classical forms, from the exciting quasi-fugato
storm with which the opera begins, through a series of brilliant
set-piece arias, a moving and ravishing love-duet, to the incredibly
assured quintet, in a sort of passacaglia rhythm, with which it
climaxes. Other highlights include beautifully-filligreed lyrical arias
for Ariel ("Five fathoms deep") and Caliban ("Be not afraid"), and a
strikingly powerful lament for Alonso ("My son is dead"). The decision
to score Stephano and Trinculo as baritone and counter-tenor was very
pleasing indeed, and it was a shame their roles were undervalued and
misunderstood by the librettist.
The opera has for its first production an almost unbelievably perfect
cast, which includes some of the biggest names in British singing:
Philip Langridge, Ian Bostridge, Simon Kneelyside. Unfortunately, Ian
Bostridge has been stricken down by a throat infection, but his
understudy took the part of Caliban, with his often difficult
ornamentation, with aplomb - receiving warm applause for his efforts.
For my money, Langridge in the role of Alonso showed that, even among
such accomplished company, he was a class apart: his voice, and acting,
was good enough to overcome some terrible problems with Meredith Oates's
This was an adaption of Shakespeare's play, and a very bad one at that.
The poetry was butchered into unmetrical rhyming couplets. Some rhymes
were truly excruciating - "daughter/gawp at her" stood out as particular
egregious. It seemed particulalrly perverse to take apart the poetry of
lines such as those from "Full fathom five" - which is, after all, a
song; it felt a bit like looking a gift horse in the mouth, especially
as Ades's music for these important set-pieces was unfailingly brilliant
and often deeply moving. But there were greater problems in the adaption
in terms of meaning and drama and plot. One left this "Tempest"
wondering what the point of it all was, because most of the meaning had
been sucked out of it, slowly and systematiclly. So, for example, the
entire opening scene was removed - nothing about these roarers not
caring for the name of King, or fate, etc. The references to the wedding
of Claribel and Tunis was abandoned, and that long shadow over the rest
of the drama was therefore lost. The wedding masque is almost completely
removed - with catastrophic impact on the meaning of the drama, and the
ambiguities of Shakespeare's thinking about power and spectacle. Most of
the play's references to time and old age were eschewed or underplayed,
because the librettist did not seem to understand how important they
were. Caliban's role in the drama was uncertain, although he had the
honour of the closing aria (Propsero's epilogue having been cut). There
were several other changes that caused problems - but perhaps the most
problematic was Prospero's explicit forgiveness of Antonio. This was a
mangled "Tempest" indeed.
I reiterate - this was massively disappointing, because Ades's music was
absolutely stunning, and should be enough to keep the work in
repertoire, if there are ensembles as dedicated to it as the one
gathered together for its premiere.
In my dreams, a much better librettist would team up with Ades to
re-draft the opera, preserving the music but adapting Shakespeare's
words and ideas to it. It could be done, I feel. There are great opera
libretti - great "Shakespeare" libretti (Otello, Falstaff); and great
English libretti (Peter Grimes, Rakes Progress). Unfortunately this one
wasn't anywhere near greatness. Nevertheless, had it been in Italian and
I'd not been able to follow it very closely, I'd have come away from
Covent Garden tonight with as broad a grin on my face as I've had for a
long while; and as it was I came away very pleased that Ades had
delivered, triumphantly, yet again.
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