This Tempest is the first piece by Thomas Adès that I don’t care for. I’m surprised and disappointed.
Six years ago he presented some selections at Disney Hall and they seemed tantalizing. Around the same time he conducted a production of his 1995 chamber opera Powder Her Face at USC, and demonstrated that he could create entertaining theater, with plenty of clowning, pathos, and satire, all done with beautiful concision: four performers and eight pointed scenes. Over the years his various conducting gigs have let us see his refined side (Couperin, Stravinsky) as well as his noisy, fun Beaux-Arts claptrap side (Berlioz, Respighi). I love his pieces that mix all of this, pop and classical, old and new. His symphonies These Premises Are Alarmed (1996) and Asyla (1997), and the violin concerto (2005) are subtle and alert musical expressions of what the streets feel like these days. The Tempest had none of this.
The Tempest isn’t a complete disaster. There were good moments, like the opening storm, and the chorus at the end. The high point was Caliban’s “Friends don’t fear,” which was the opera’s version of Shakespeare’s “The isle is full of noises” speech. It was moving and eerie.
Unfortunately nothing else rose to that level. Simon Keenlyside did his best with a Prospero part in which he was given nothing to do but convey unwanted exposition set to music expressive of exasperation. I got tired of listening to it, and tired of looking at his tattoos and his pecs. Audrey Luna, the Ariel, was given an even more thankless task. She had one great moment, confronting the castaways as a monster, but otherwise her music never rose above irritating screeching. Somebody obviously told Luna that Ariel was “bird-like,” and boy, did we get some hammy ornithological attitudinizing. It was a reminder of how pedestrian and banal all the characterizations were.
Because I like Adès, I put all the blame on the librettist Meredith Oakes, who failed to provide clear dramatic situations and characters for the music to embody. In the absence of a dramatic container, Adès meandered. The music unspooled like so much fabric pouring out of a machine. Much of it was rich and intricate, but it didn’t make any dramatic sense. Moreover, the language was stunningly repulsive, outstandingly bad even for an opera libretto: neither Shakespeare, nor poetry, nor modern colloquial English. Oafish and tin-eared.
The only possible excuse for appropriating Shakespeare for anything is a unique, eccentric and passionate personal vision. Nothing like that is present in the Adès/Oakes version. Nothing in the characters, situations or the language of the Tempest has fired them up.
This absence of any compelling dramatic or musical vision created the opening through which Robert Lapage marched the Thanksgiving Day parade of his busy, bossy staging. The opera was so inert that I was glad for some of the spectacular moments: the storm, the weird exits through the prompter box, and the whole last act taking place in an opera house orchestra pit. (Don’t ask me why.)
What a mess! I hope Adès has learned not to listen to the people and institutions that prompted him to undertake this project. They’re merely appropriating Shakespeare’s prestige to prop up their own professional ambitions. God knows they’re not the first to do this, but I expected better of the composer of Powder Her Face.
[Image: Engraving after Prospero, Miranda and Caliban, by Henry Fuseli (1798)]