by Alex Ross
The New Yorker, March 1, 2004.
I first heard the music of Thomas Adès on a gloomy spring day in Aldeburgh, England, in 1995. The composer was then twenty-four—a nervously confident youth who spoke in rumbling bass tones, like a very English Ving Rhames. The piece on display was “Living Toys,” which featured the sort of everywhere-scurrying, chaos-theory music that composers under the influence of György Ligeti were writing at the time. But I heard something else, too—an articulate melancholy, which gathered itself into brief, sobbing pleas. Through a maze of styles and moods, the work took listeners far into a private world. Here was a composer who seemed capable of anything.
In the years that followed, Adès became famous, notorious, a bit overexposed—problems American composers only wish they had. His first opera, “Powder Her Face,” was celebrated not so much for its razor-sharp characterizations as for its onstage blow job. His first big symphonic piece, “Asyla,” had a much discussed, much imitated scherzo movement depicting a druggy night at a London club. In 1999, he dumbfounded a New York Philharmonic audience with a monumentally grim cantata entitled “America: A Prophecy,” which contained the lines “Your cities will fall . . . It is foretold / Prepare.” All the focus on the outré features of Adès’s works disguised the fact that they were tied together with fantastically ornate thematic designs, as if the composer were intent on dressing animal energies in impeccable clothes.
Then came a period in which the new star of English music seemed uncertain of his direction. He had a commission from the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, and after stalling on one project he decided on short notice to tackle another: Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.” Deadlines loomed, the score was not ready. A no longer worshipful British press hinted that a fiasco might be in the offing. There were reports that fellow-composers were pitching in with the orchestration, that singers were complaining about the difficulty of their parts. Articles on the eve of the première characterized Adès as a purveyor of “facile cleverness” and “shallow sophistication” who had tried to do “too much too soon.”
How much is too soon? To adapt Tom Lehrer’s immortal line, when Schubert was Adès’s age he had been dead for a year. “The Tempest” is the opposite of a disappointment; it is a masterpiece of airy beauty and eerie power. As if on schedule, Adès, at thirty-two, is now the major artist that his earliest works promised he would become.
There have been at least fifty operas based on “The Tempest,” none of which have entered the repertory. Probably the most significant “Tempest”-inspired score is the incidental music that Sibelius wrote in 1925—a mesmerizing, many-sided work that cries out to be revived alongside a production of the play. Prospero, ruler of an enchanted island, is himself a kind of composer, prone to use music as the vessel of his magic. He manipulates the shipwrecked aristocrats of Naples and Milan, hypnotizes Caliban, and makes a match for his daughter Miranda all by way of “marvellous sweet music,” “solemn and strange music,” “a thousand twangling instruments,” “that deep and dreadful organ-pipe.” Even when Prospero abjures his art, he summons “heavenly music” to punctuate the act. He writes the cue for his own exit, directing the drama to the bitterly beautiful end.
Yet the melodious omnipotence of Prospero springs a trap on unsuspecting composers. His powers are essentially godlike—and God, for all His achievements in other media, has seldom made for a lively figure on the stage. Without the possibility of defeat, there is no potential for operatic melodrama: this is what undermined Frank Martin’s formidable “Tempest” setting of 1956. Adès wisely assigned the libretto to Meredith Oakes, a seasoned playwright who had the guts to rewrite Shakespeare. They have solved the Prospero problem by making the great magician a more fallible, vulnerable being. He can still conjure storms and immobilize enemies, but he no longer shapes the wills of others. When Miranda falls in love with Ferdinand of Naples, it happens against her father’s will, not in keeping with his design. And when, at the end, he offers to forgive his brother Antonio, who expelled him from the Duchy of Milan, Antonio snubs him, saying, “Your life has been my death.” As in many revisionist theatrical productions, this Prospero is a man of genius but also a brooding neurotic. In operatic terms, he comes to resemble one of Verdi’s controlling fathers, or, even more closely, Wagner’s disempowered Wotan.
Oakes also plays fast and loose with Shakespeare’s words. Grand speeches are telescoped into tight couplets that sometimes read like pop lyrics. Purists may find these changes alarming—I was distressed to find that “Full fathom five,” three of my favorite words in the language, had become “Five fathoms deep”—but veterans of contemporary premières will be relieved to find that for once a librettist and a composer have taken charge of a sacred text and made it their own. Too often these days, we get Cliffs Notes operas that effortfully string together one famous literary line after another. This libretto is designed to be sung—“Full fathom five” is, on close inspection, short on long vowels—and Adès makes the most of it.
The opera begins with a roiling overture, similar in tone to Sibelius’“Storm” prelude. Throughout the first act, a fraught mood prevails. Prospero tends to sing in heavyhearted, downward-curving phrases, often made up of alternating semitones and fifths—a zigzagging pattern that also occurs in the melancholic slow movement of “Asyla.” The baritone Simon Keenlyside sang the role at Covent Garden and gave it a doom-drunk, Wagnerian heft. The spirit Ariel, by contrast, scales the heights of the soprano range and stays there for perilously long periods of time. In her first minute onstage, the singer has to belt out seventeen high E’s. Somehow, the brilliant American soprano Cyndia Sieden subdued this homicidal part, and had the audience laughing in amazement.
In Act II, Prospero’s frozen world begins to melt, and Adès discovers a glowing new lyric voice. Earlier in his career, he tended to dart in and out of worlds of songful simplicity, seemingly afraid to venture too deep; now he settles in for long, ardent stretches. The epiphany not only of the opera but perhaps of his entire career to date comes in Caliban’s aria “Friends don’t fear”—a version of the speech “The isle is full of noises, / Sounds, and sweet airs.” This is ravishing music in purest A major, though the notes of the scale blend together in ever-changing, shimmering combinations. The effect is of light flooding the scene, of warmth rushing in. Ian Bostridge, at the première, delivered the aria with hushed passion, as if afraid of waking from a dream. From this point on, the lyric wonders multiply: at the end of the act, Ferdinand and Miranda have a love duet that might have brought a tear to Puccini’s eye, and in Act III leading characters join together in a radiant quintet—“How good they are, how bright, how grand”—that builds in waves over a chaconnelike ground bass.
The ultimate magic of this “Tempest” is that everything comes from a single harmonic matrix. The music of Ferdinand and Miranda and Caliban sounds luxuriously tonal, but it is of a piece with the much tougher music that is heard at the outset. When Caliban and Ariel regain possession of the island, in an epilogue to Shakespeare, Prospero’s chains of intervals recur, except that the claustrophobic semitone has widened one degree and the cycle moves not down but up. Ariel sings mere vowels—“A-i-e”—from a hidden place above the stage. The music lifts you into the stratosphere, and you don’t want to leave.
Covent Garden assembled a tremendous cast for the occasion—not only Keenlyside, Bostridge, and Sieden but also Christine Rice, as Miranda; Toby Spence, as Ferdinand; Philip Langridge, as the King of Naples; John Daszak, as Antonio; Gwynne Howell, as Gonzalo; and Christopher Maltman, as Sebastian. I wasn’t sure about the spare, futuristic look of Tom Cairns’s production—it seemed to allude to “Forbidden Planet” and Peter Greenaway’s “Prospero’s Books”—but he gave excellent direction to the singers. I liked how Antonio first stood with the others in the Act III quintet, as if he were going to join in the reconciliation, and then sank to the side in disgust. Adès himself conducted, drawing a riot of color from the orchestra. I could sense the anxiety of the performers turning by degrees into elation, and the no less anxious audience responding in kind. A huge, stamping-and-shouting roar greeted the composer when he took his solo bow—a final storm of sound on the enchanted island.