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Involving and magical

ROBERT HUGILL experiences
Thomas Adès's opera 'The Tempest'


It is nearly nine years since the première of Thomas Adès' first opera, Powder her Face at the Cheltenham Festival in 1995. Adès is now only thirty two and the success of this stupendous first opera has rather caused a burden of expectation about his second. In earlier times and places, Adès would have been able to work out his apprenticeship, learning the craft of opera-making, out of the full glare of international publicity. But in the 21st century, each new major opera composer (rare beasts in themselves) is a great white hope and expectations run high. Some people have created marvels with their second opera, eg Britten and Peter Grimes. But some have not; after all Richard Strauss was a seasoned orchestral composer when his first two operas were premièred, both of these failed due to operatic as opposed to musical weaknesses. It was only with the acquisition of an experienced librettist that his third opera triumphed. So, inevitably, signals were rather mixed for Adès with a première at Covent Garden and a rather varied history behind the opera including the failure to come to fruition of Adès first ideas for the subject matter.

Adès was himself conducting and the opera prelude opened with magical sounds conjured from the orchestra. This developed into the storm and the stage revealed a darkened cyclorama with some amazing fluorescent outlines and gradually a luminous ship descended from the flies. Throughout the staging the lighting design by Wolfgang Goebbel was fabulous. On a deceptively simple set, Goebbel with stage designers Tom Cairns and Moritz Junge conjured through light alone a series of magical stage pictures.

Simon Keenlyside as Prospero in the world première of 'The Tempest' by Thomas Adès at Covent Garden. © 2004 Clive Barda
Simon Keenlyside as Prospero in the world première of 'The Tempest' by Thomas Adès at Covent Garden. © 2004 Clive Barda

Prospero was sung by Simon Keenlyside wearing a ragged suit -- half tail coat, half lounge suit -- and with eye makeup reminiscent of the pop singer Adam Ant. Keenlyside displayed magnificent diction, rendering the surtitles superfluous whilst he was singing. Prospero's music was arioso throughout the opera, effective but not always very magical. As his daughter Miranda, mezzo-soprano Christine Rice managed to be warm and passionate, virginal and naïve without ever sounding mumsy, which can be a problem with casting mezzo-sopranos as young heroines.

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Copyright © 19 February 2004 Robert Hugill, London UK


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