ADÈS: The Tempest.
Simon Keenlyside (Prospero); Cynthia Sieden (Ariel); Ian Bostridge (Caliban); Kate Royal (Miranda); Toby Spence (Ferdinand); Philip Langridge (King of Naples); Donald Kaasch (Antonio); Stephen Richardson (Stefano); David Cordier (Trinculo); Jonathan Summers (Sebastian); Graeme Danby (Gonzalo). The Royal Opera Chorus; The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden/Thomas Adès
EMI 6 952534 (2 disks)(F) (DDD) TT: 117:24

Surprise! I came to this CD fully expecting to hate it. After all, I've hated every other CD from this composer. I kept telling myself I wasn't one of those who had swallowed the Adès Kool-Aid. I always thought him precious rather than "magical" and superficial rather than "exploratory." I recognized a great ear for orchestral sonority, but it seemed to ally itself with musical vapidity. Adès's earlier opera Powder Her Face struck me as morally coarse.

So, for the first couple of minutes and following my established pattern, I did hate The Tempest. Then I began to think, "This libretto is marvelous. Too bad it's wasted on such trendy claptrap." However, within fifteen minutes, the opera almost completely won me over, music and all. Consider the Kool-Aid drunk.

Part of the opera's success, as I've implied, comes from a fabulous libretto by poet, playwright, and musician Meredith Oakes. Shakespearean opera libretti fall into four large categories: free paraphrases of Shakespeare, most of Shakespeare jettisoned but keeping well-known set pieces, all of Shakespeare jettisoned (except perhaps the basic plot) in favor of "new expression." Oakes takes the first route, and brilliantly. She keeps enough Shakespearean echoes to satisfy a pedant like me (of course, the fact that she's a brilliant poet helps), while streamlining the rhythms of Shakespeare's original verse. It's Shakespeare and it's not Shakespeare. For example, Shakespeare wrote:

Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell:
Hark! now I hear them -- ding-dong, bell.
One of Shakespeare's loveliest lyrics. Indeed, The Tempest is full of some of his most musical verse. Here's Oakes's version:
Five fathoms deep
Your father lies
These are pearls
That were his eyes
Nothing of him
That was mortal
Is the same.
His bones are coral
He has suffered
A sea change
Into something
Rich and strange
Sea-nymphs hourly
Ring his knell.
I can hear them
Ding dong bell.
For the purposes of opera, I would argue the superiority of Oakes's version. First, opera has to move, and ornate rhetoric, no matter how beautiful, slows it down. Notice, for example, the nine stops of the Shakespeare compared to the eight stops of the Oakes, as well as the simpler sentence structure of the latter. In general text setting, each stop usually translates musically into a cadence, so that the music restarts, rather than continues. Notice also that Oakes's verse lies on the page a lot like pop song lyrics, as in

Fascinatin' rhythm,
You've got me on the go
Fascinatin' rhythm,
I'm all a-quiver, etc.
Usually, the pop lyric is designed to fit an existing tune. However, it also provides a composer with more flexibility of phrase than rigid stanza and verse structures. Adès started golden.

Musically, the opera seems post-Britten. The immediate comparison that came to mind was Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream. There are, of course, significant differences. For instance, Britten's is one of the few Shakespearean operas that confines itself to the play's text. Also, Britten's work is a masterpiece, although I certainly didn't think so back in the Sixties, when I first heard it. It has since grown on me. Indeed, the Adès made the same initial impression, overall. The first hook it got into me was Miranda's music -- lovely in itself and illustrative of her lovely nature. Other high points include the comedy bits between Stefano and Trinculo, neatly timed, the expert management of large ensembles with emerging solos, and the beauty of the final ensembles, intricate but executed with Mozartean clarity.

This doesn't mean I don't have objections. The chief one is Adès's treatment of Ariel. He gives the part to a high soprano at mostly the upper end of her range, often high C and above. I understand why he's done it -- to create an other-worldly sound for a spirit, much as Britten uses a counter-tenor for Oberon in A Midsummer Night's Dream. However, at Ariel's range (any higher and only bats, porpoises, and chihuahuas could hear), it becomes an undifferentiated shriek. Oakes might as well not have bothered with using words at these points (she does abandon them in the end, where Ariel, freed, sings pure vowels), since Adès sacrifices them all to his concept. Furthermore, the music Adès gives to Prospero lacks memorability, a serious lapse for, after all, the main character.

Despite all this, the opera wins me over. There are enough sugar-plums to satisfy my sweet tooth, and the performances are smashing. Simon Keenlyside, one of my favorite baritones, is a superior actor. Triumphing over the music, he gives a commanding Prospero, so good I wonder how well he'd do in a Royal Shakespeare production without singing. Kate Royal's Miranda is the beating heart of the production, with a voice that matches her music. Cynthia Sieden does spectacularly well, in that she hits the stratosphere truly singing. Her attacks and intonation are superb. Adès should buy her something nice to atone for the vocal crimes he's committed against her. David Cordier as Trinculo, a counter-tenor, has an easy way with comedy. He manages to sound as if he always has at least a slight buzz on. We also have Ian Bostridge and Philip Langridge (as Caliban and the doleful King of Naples, respectively), two of the most distinguished Lieder singers of their generation and old Britten hands. That experience serves them well here. The Royal Opera House Orchestra and Chorus give Adès their best. Like most opera recordings these days, the performance comes from the stage production and occasionally sounds like it, with little speed bumps, but it's miles above most performances of new work and shouldn't be enough to deter you.

S.G.S. (July 2010)