Tom Cairns’ production of The Tempest is visually the most exciting production of a contemporary opera since Harrison Birtwistle’s Gawain on this stage in the early 90s. From the opening storm, with flying spirits and fantastical imagery, there’s a sense of magic throughout. The formidable line-up of British vocal talent (Keenlyside, Langridge, Bostridge, Royal, Spence) could hardly be bettered either.
The production is endlessly inventive with images seeming to spring out of Prospero’s magic book, a platform on which the action takes place. Ferdinand emerges from the pages of rolling waves and is then magically trapped in a red box. Act 3, following the interval, plunges us into a darker place, a lost world with tangled roots, dinosaurs and gargantuan prehistoric fish, as conspiracies both serious and semi-comical – develop and threaten to unravel Prospero’s manipulations.
The cast is impeccable with, apart from Kate Royal who replaces Christine Rice as Miranda, most leads resuming their roles from the premiere three years ago. Although short of stature, Simon Keenlyside (Prospero) is always a commanding presence and I found there’s too much of the opera without him, his return always welcome. Miranda has some uncomfortably high material early on but it’s as nothing compared to that which follows for Ariel. Cyndia Sieden gives an extraordinary performance as the spirit. It’s hard to believe she’s actually singing the words that appear on the surtitles; rather it’s another language of sounds that we’re seeing translated.
Philip Langridge is full of despair as the King of Naples and Toby Spence suitably romantic in voice and looks as his presumed-drowned son. For a monster, Caliban (Ian Bostridge) is mighty lyrical and his Act 2 aria based on “The Isle is full of noises” is an utterly beautiful highlight of the opera.
If Ferdinand believes he is the only survivor of the shipwreck, he couldn’t be more wrong. In this version, the entire court seems to have been saved and we have a chorus whose presence curtails much of the clowning of Caliban, Trinculo and Stefano in their early scenes, which is no bad thing.
The librettist is the Australian dramatist Meredith Oakes. Gone is the familiar iambic pentameter of Shakespeare and we now have a text, modelled on the original but much of it in half sentences with rhymes, or near rhymes, sitting often uncomfortably close together (“I can’t tell/I’m not well”). Famous speeches are carved up, recognisable in part and coming close at times to parody.
Ads’ score (conducted by the composer) describes a range of emotions, from the over-arching grief of Naples mourning his son, to the wide-eyed wonder of the lovers and the seething resentment of the banished magician Prospero. It plumbs the heights and depths of emotion and pitch, with some very low-lying notes for Prospero and hellishly high lines for Ariel.
The best music of the evening is saved until last, with the touching reunion between King and Prince leading onto the most ravishing quintet. There follows a very interesting solo for Antonio, performed with crystal-clear diction by Donald Kaasch, a mix of remorse and reproach, before Prospero cedes the island to Caliban, monarch of an unpeopled kingdom. The opera ends hauntingly, with the disembodied voice of the freed spirit Ariel gently floating away from somewhere high in the theatre.
This is an opera that is sure to please both connoisseurs and those new to modern works and it’s worth getting a ticket any way you can.