The term “Shakespearean opera” has a two-edged ring. Association with the Bard surely lends some sort of guarantee, or at least a template of character and thought, but examples of his plays translating into music are few. The plays are either so complete that there’s little for music to add, or composers are too reverential. Both apply to Thomas Adès’s The Tempest, which returned to the Covent Garden repertory on Monday, three years after it was unveiled there.
This first revival – the opera has in the meantime been staged in Strasbourg, Copenhagen and Santa Fe – is hugely successful on its own terms. Tom Cairns’s production, with its phantasmagorical colours, shapes and forms, seems even more dazzling than in 2004. Most of the original cast have returned, with gravitas enhanced by deeper acquaintance. Adès himself conducts a scorching account, and everyone benefits from having had more time than the first time round, when material was still being written up to the last minute.
So this revival – part of a month-long Adès celebration that began with last week’s Berlin Philharmonic visit to the Barbican – reflects well on the Royal Opera and goes a long way to masking The Tempest’s limitations. But it also allows for a more sanguine assessment than was possible at the time of the euphoric premiere.
Adès is such a darling of the music establishment, and so obviously more talented than his peers, that one almost feels an apostate to suggest he took a wrong turning with The Tempest. It’s as if, having blazed a trail with his early chamber-opera, Powder Her Face, and picked up a prestigious commission on the back of it, he caved in to convention – much like Mark-Anthony Turnage in his progression from Greek to The Silver Tassie. In Adès’s case it may have something to do with the fact that he had at least one false start with more progressive ideas before settling on Shakespeare’s play, which he musicked into a three-act grand opera.
No other composer has successfully set The Tempest. The music is already in the words; most of the action takes place offstage. Adès compounds the problem by slavishly following Shakespeare. He hasn’t used music to reinvent the structure or get under his characters’ skin. Prospero – the magician-dramatist who, in casting a spell over cast and audience, discovers his own limitations – becomes a sketchy Wagnerian archetype: we don’t feel for him, and so we don’t feel for anybody. Ariel is made for movement, but Adès makes the part static – and so stratospheric in pitch that we can’t hear the words. The Naples court is a mess: the comedy is flat, the choral writing old-fashioned, glaringly so at the start of Act 2. There are too many characters. Adès could have done with a Boito (Verdi’s librettist for Otello and Falstaff), though Meredith Oakes simplified his task with her fluent couplets.
The opera’s one out-and-out success is Caliban, a mystical character-part that the wonderfully liberated Ian Bostridge makes his own. The love music is stunning, as is the opening storm. And the quasi-Elizabethan timbre of the “magic” – glancing back to Britten and Tippett – is intermittently hypnotic. But intermittent inspiration is this Tempest’s story: it’s an opera groaning beneath the weight of its machinery.
Simon Keenlyside’s Prospero remains a powerful but opaque presence, handsomely sung. Cynthia Sieden repeats her pixie-like Ariel, and Philip Langridge’s King of Naples makes much out of little. I liked Toby Spence’s Ferdinand; Kate Royal’s Miranda, beautiful of voice and appearance, needs to loosen up. The whole cast is better than the parts written for them.
‘The Tempest’ is at the Royal Opera, Covent Garden until March 26. Tel )20 7304 4000