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Kingdom of the mind

Covent Garden
02/10/2004 -  and 12, 14, 16, 18, 20 February 2004
Thomas Adès: The Tempest

Simon Keenlyside (Prospero), Christine Rice (Miranda), Toby Spence (Ferdinand), Ian Bostridge (Caliban), Cyndia Sieden (Ariel), Philip Langridge (King of Naples), John Daszak (Antonio), Christopher Maltman (Sebastian), Lawrence Zazzo (Trinculo), Stephen Richardson (Stephano), Gwynne Howell (Gonzalo)

Thomas Adès (conductor), Tom Cairns (director)

The Royal Opera Chorus and Orchestra

It is a relief to see a world premiere of an opera that does not involve the unfortunate Rodney Gilfrey, who has sung leading roles with great skill and complete professionalism in two much hyped flops. But then Thomas Adès' version of Shakespeare's The Tempest is far better crafted than most recent great-books operas and, on first hearing, more musically original without being too much like hard work. Its cast is outstandingly well chosen and expert rather than starry, and the production is abstract and impressive rather than lavish. The audience at Covent Garden were ecstatic, and not just because it wasn't another turkey.

Adès' choice of subject looks handy enough for an international-house work: Shakespeare, but not too mainstream; implicitly about the power theatre and music; and redolent of Verdi'n'Wagner themes, notably a father-daughter relationship, power, revenge and the question of whether to live in the world or in the mind. Meredith Oakes' libretto is masterly, a comparable achievement to Boioto's for Verdi in both method and quality: she has rewritten the substance of the play in free modern English couplets, as if translating into another language, to produce a singable, lucid text that structures the musical drama without constraining it with verbiage. A few famous lines are recognisable, though the speeches many of the audience memorized at school are expertly summarized in single couplets, or even lines.

The overall scope of the work is made more compact as well. "Our revels are finished" refers purely to Prospero's pranks on the Neapolitans, since the masque is missing, and the whole drama looks into Prospero's soul rather than out at the effects he causes in the theatre. The music is correspondingly controlled: the opening storm is definitely dramatic, but more Debussy than Strauss, let alone Fingal's cave; the vocal lines generally work with the words rather than offering emotional display, except for Ariel, whose voice is treated like an instrument in the expressionist palette of the island's noises. Cyndia Sieden's incredible performance of the stratospheric, semi-wordless vocal line made a major contribution to the effect of the music.

The comedy and cruelty are also muted, with Caliban an almost lyrical mooncalf and Stephano and Trinculo not particularly funny or outrageous, just a bit drunk. But then this is perhaps an environmentalist or post-colonial Tempest rather than the Freudian one most familiar from the film Forbidden planet. Prospero, forced by violence at home to usurp an alien, undeveloped kingdom, has a choice between reason and anger, fairness and revenge, not between his monstrous and divine natures, or between infantile theatrical indulgence and adult culture. In a way, it is a supremely unoperatic conception, and it is to the credit of Adès' music, as well the production and performances, that it is always engaging, with every scene as long as it needs to be and a surface excitement layered on a deeper sense of weariness and mortality.

The orchestra, directed by the composer, was on concert-class form, spookily lucid and supportive of the singers. The singers were more uneven, although all ideal on paper. Christine Rice as Miranda was glorious, if a touch mature of voice, though there was a niggling doubt that she might just have fallen for Toby Spence's pretty face, as he didn't bring much allure to his music. Simon Keenlyside as Prospero was decidedly sexed down with grizzled hair and glasses, looking a tad like Matthew Best, Scottish National Opera's Wotan. His performance was introspective and seemed a bit insecure -- there have been rumours of discontent with last-minute rewrites of the score. But his vocal authority is undeniable, and his final renunciation of magic in favour of responsible worldly power was moving. Philip Langridge was a gentle King of Naples, as world-weary as Prospero, and Gwynne Howell's saintly Gonzalo was even more downbeat. The clowns and villains didn't get much help from the music, and a set of generally pretty good singing actors went for very little. Only Ian Bostridge's strange, damaged Caliban had a personality and a kind of authority. He was almost Prospero's distorted mirror image rather than a formless monster.

Tom Cairns' production and set (co-designed with Moritz Junge) helped give what is probably a rather intangible work an immediate impact. The single set consisted of a huge book, or perhaps a notebook computer, that revolved and opened and closed. Fantasy- island appropriate fauna and flora appeared from time to time, lurking in the general gloom, picked out with random lights and Ariel's lime-green fluorescent rock. At first it all looked like a particularly dire Wolf's Glen, but there was a dream-like progress that embodied the music and drama through to the end, when Caliban picked up his crown and restored it to himself as he sat on the closed book in the empty stage.

HE Elsom



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