If it’s true, as was widely reported, that Thomas Adès was still writing the overture a few days before the opening night of The Tempest, the achievement of all concerned in conjuring up an almost perfect experience is all the more remarkable. At least the conductor didn’t have to learn the score, as the frighteningly youthful Mr Adès was taking charge himself.
The magic begins with that overture – gentle, spine-tingling and spooky (hints of Britten’s Midsummer Night’s Dream) before the eponymous storm is unleashed in thrilling fashion. There’s also a wonderful taste of the visual feast about to be provided, as spirit lights flit in the background through layers of shifting shapes. As the storm reaches its height we realise we’re not in the air, but underwater – and that’s a ship sinking below the waves, as figures freewheel in slow motion through the air, water, whatever…
The visual inventiveness continues throughout the opera, with nods to that other famous version of the Tempest, Return To The Forbidden Planet, and ’70s glam-rock – day-glo rocks, static dinosaurs, Prospero’s Bowie-like eye makeup. The centrepiece of the set is one of Prospero’s books – or is it a laptop at times? – that rotates, opens and shuts to provide a constantly changing perspective and set of levels for the protagonists.
It also provides one of the most breathtaking visual moments of the evening, when Ferdinand is washed up on the shore and waves appear to be breaking and foaming out of the book itself. Full marks to the team – Tom Cairns (Director / Co-designer), Moritz Junge (Costumes / Co-designer) and Wolfgang Gobbel (Lighting). Between them they made me believe I was indeed seeing a spellbound island. This is Tom Cairns first work for ROH – more, please.
It’s difficult to say a lot about the music of a full-length opera (Adès’ first) on one hearing. It’s been said that he’s a bit of a magpie, stealing here from Britten, here from Tippet. Certainly these influences are discernible, but what’s more important is that the whole is something quite his own. There is lush orchestration, there are heartbreaking melodies, and there are grand finales (particularly a fabulous quintet in Act III) that take us back to the baroque. This is music that will grow with familiarity, and as it is being broadcast on both Radio Three and BBC Four before the end of the all-too-short short run there are more chances to hear it.
The music does not spare the singers, however, and suits some better than others (which is curious as it was in effect being written for each individual). The young American coloratura soprano Cyndia Sieden makes her Covent Garden debut as Ariel, and there’s hardly a note below top E in her first aria. It’s so high that it can hardly be called singing – and certainly the surtitles are essential (despite the English libretto) at this stage. Ms Sieden proves later that she has a phenomenal voice but this is savage stuff for any soprano.
Aside from a delightful cameo from counter-tenor Lawrence Zazzo as Trinculo, the remainder of the cast is Britain’s finest. Have so many ever shared a stage before? Simon Keenlyside leads the way as Prospero – the score is at times low for him, but he is, as ever, a commanding figure and when in the range for his voice to melt and caress it duly does so. Toby Spence is a handsome Ferdinand, in fine voice – one can understand Christine Rice’s sympathetic Miranda being bowled over.
Philip Langridge is a moving King of Naples, mourning the apparent loss of his son; Christopher Maltman is a bit of a cipher as his brother Sebastian. Gwynne Howell sings the good-hearted Gonzalo with his characteristic warmth while John Daszak plays the villain of the piece, Antonio.
The star of the show however is that other well-loved British tenor, Ian Bostridge. An unlikely casting as Caliban, one might think – his ethereal voice hardly the stuff of monsters, and here the music almost turns him into a counter-tenor. This is Caliban as a creature who excites our sympathy, even as we shudder; lanky and paste-white, in rags that were obviously once finery, and Bostridge is in wonderful, poignant voice. When Prospero’s revenge is finished, and the mortals have left the island, Caliban takes up the crown cast aside by the King of Naples and becomes an almost unbearably moving figure over which the curtain slowy falls.
If you haven’t already got your ticket, you probably won’t get to see this Tempest – at least this time round in London. It’s a co-production with Opera National du Rhin, Strasbourg and Det Kongelige Teater, Copenhagen. It’s worth travelling to see – and one hopes it will return quickly to Covent Garden. We need magic like this.