Adès: Scenes from the Tempest

Thomas Adès was born March 1, 1971, in London, England, where he currently lives. He composed his opera The Tempest in 2003-04, on commission from the Royal Opera House in London. Meredith Oakes wrote the libretto, basing it on Shakespeare’s play The Tempest. The work’s premiere took place at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, on February 10, 2004, with the composer conducting; the cast included Simon Keenlyside (Prospero), Cyndia Sieden (Ariel), Christine Rice (Miranda), and Toby Spence (Ferdinand). The United States premiere took place on July 29, 2006, at the Santa Fe Opera, with Alan Gilbert conducting. These are the first San Francisco Symphony performances. The scenes performed here involve four singers: Prospero (high baritone), Ariel (high soprano), Miranda (mezzo-soprano), and Ferdinand (tenor). The orchestra for these selections comprises two flutes and piccolo (one flute also doubling piccolo), three oboes (one doubling English horn), three clarinets (third doubling bass clarinet), two bassoons and contrabassoon (doubling bassoon), four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, suspended cymbals (small, large), glockenspiel, cymbals, bass drum, tam-tam, triangle, snare drum, handbells, crotale, log drum, side drum, piano, and strings. Performance time: about twenty-five minutes.

Although he is still in his early forties, Thomas Adès is widely hailed as one of the most significant of contemporary composers. He studied piano and composition at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and then went on to advanced study at King’s College, Cambridge, where his teachers included Alexander Goehr and Robin Holloway. Already in 1989 he was awarded second prize in the BBC’s “Musician of the Year” contest in recognition of his skill as a pianist, and to this day he continues to concertize and record as a pianist, both in solo repertory and as a collaborative pianist.

He also appears regularly as a conductor of such ensembles as the Boston Symphony, Los Angeles Philharmonic, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Chamber Orchestra of Europe, Philharmonia Orchestra, Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra, and London Symphony Orchestra. A contract with the recording company EMI ensured that he is richly represented on CDs through his work as a pianist, conductor, and composer. As a performer he often plays or conducts his own works, but he is also acclaimed for his interpretations of other modern composers and of classical repertory.

Adès held Carnegie Hall’s composer chair during the 2007-08 season, and in 2009-10 he was the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic’s featured composer. He was music director of the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group (1998-2000), and from 1999 to 2008 was artistic director of the Aldeburgh Festival. In 2000 he received the prestigious Grawemeyer Award for his orchestral work Asyla, and the EMI recording of The Tempest earned him the Diapason d’Or de l’année and the 2010 Classical BRIT Award for Composer of the Year. His explorations have included collaborations with video artist Tal Rosner; one of these, Polaris, was memorably presented by the San Francisco Symphony in 2011.

Adès’s first stage work was Powder Her Face, commissioned by the adventurous Almeida Opera for performance at the Cheltenham Music Festival in 1995. It provoked enough interest to merit a new production by the same company four years later, and since then it has gone on to be mounted internationally. In the wake of that success he received commissions for two further operas, one from the Glyndebourne festival (an operatic retelling of a Cocteau film), the other from the Royal Opera House. The Glyndebourne project fizzled, and the Royal Opera one looked as if it might, too, when initial plans to develop something from Luis Buñuel’s film The Exterminating Angel similarly led to a dead end. But rather than let that relationship wither, Adès proposed another topic: Shakespeare’s The Tempest

Shakespeare plays have given rise to at least 300 operas, and The Tempest seems to have inspired more composers than any other Shakespeare work. Dating from 1611, it was his last play (or at least the last one he wrote solo), and it is easy to appreciate it as a valedictory piece. The plot revolves around Prospero, the rightful Duke of Milan. His power usurped by his brother, he and his daughter, Miranda, are put out to sea and are marooned on an island, which he rules with the help of his magic powers and the “airy spirit” Ariel. A storm deposits others on the island, among them Ferdinand, son of the King of Naples (who had abetted Prospero’s brother in the power grab). Ferdinand and Miranda fall in love, and after using his sorcery to regain the position he lost, Prospero releases Ariel from his/her/its bond and sets off with the others back to Italy. It probably qualifies as the most “musical” of Shakespeare’s plays. “The isle is full of noises, sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not,” says the monster Caliban, a lurking menace to everyone, who is happy to have his island to himself at the end. Among the composers who presumably considered turning those noises into operas were Mozart and Mendelssohn. Among those who persevered and completed one, we find only lesser names, the most memorable being Johann Friedrich Reichardt, Johann Rudolf Zumsteeg, Wenzel Müller, Zdeněk Fibich, and Frank Martin. None of their Tempest-based operas have staked a place in posterity.

The Royal Opera brought in two collaborators for Adès, the playwright-librettist Meredith Oakes and the stage director Tom Cairns. The three set about molding the play into a form that would spring alive on the operatic stage. In the book Thomas Adès: Full of Noises: Conversations with Tom Service, the composer explained to his interlocutor: “I could imagine all the composers who have thought about an opera on The Tempest . . .  sitting down to read the thing, and by the end of Scene 2 they’re in despair because it is so apparently formless. Beethoven, Sibelius, Ligeti, et cetera. . . . The medium of opera demands more radical restrictions in order to work than spoken drama.” Oakes drafted a libretto that was based on Shakespeare’s words, but she rendered the text afresh, maintaining a sense of its poetry while reining it in to render it more comprehensible. Adès said: “I wanted to approach Shakespeare as if foreign. Of course, we were writing the piece in Shakespeare’s city, but the past is another country, so we should approach it like people living in another country and translate it, but in a translation that would be faithful to the spirit and the atmosphere of the original.” Oakes elaborated: “The libretto uses contemporary vocabulary. Its lines are short, rhythmic and rhymed or semi-rhymed, echoing Shakespeare’s strophic songs more than his blank verse. This choice reflects the play’s magical, ritual, childlike elements, and acknowledges the traditional power of incantation in song.”

“The aim,” Adès stated, “was essentially to write a symphonic opera, which means that in theory the evening is driven by the musical logic at least as much as by the logic of the drama itself.” Indeed this three-act work makes strenuous demands on the orchestral musicians, but it does so without surpassing the capacities of a standard orchestra with triple winds. All of the sounds are strictly acoustic, the textures tend toward transparency, and “special effect” instruments are mostly sidelined. “In The Tempest,” said the composer, “I deliberately restricted the use of old-fashioned ‘magical’ sounds like glockenspiel or celeste. One has this choice, particularly dealing with a piece where the supernatural and magical qualities are one of the main subjects. Do we make the whole score actually full of vibraphones and waterphones? Well, maybe. I thought it better to create the impression that there were a lot of those colours, but in fact, use a strictly classical orchestra.”

The Tempest created a sensation when it received its premiere at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden. By then, the Copenhagen Opera House and Opéra national du Rhin in Strasbourg had signed on as co-producers. Both companies went on to present it, and the Royal Opera revived it in 2007. By that time the work had received its first American production, at Santa Fe Opera in 2006. In 2012, it was mounted by the Metropolitan Opera, in a co-production with the Vienna State Opera and Québec City Opera Festival.

In this concert, we hear excerpts from Acts I and II. Whereas the opera has roles for eleven characters (plus chorus), the scenes given here involve only four roles: Ariel (high soprano), Prospero (high baritone), Miranda (mezzo-soprano), and Ferdinand (tenor). The action here begins with Act I, Scene 2, in which Prospero summons Ariel. His line sits perilously high for a baritone, but stratospheric notes turn out to be business as usual in this opera. Ariel appears, singing “Fear to the sinner, Fire to the impure” to a dazzling melody as Act I, Scene 3 gets underway. Describing Ariel as a high soprano really does not prepare listeners for the reality of the role, which is unquestionably the highest soprano part in the operatic repertoire. In her opening quatrain, which covers nineteen measures, the soprano touches seventeen times on high E (three ledger lines above the treble staff), and a page later, having warmed up, she pops out a couple of F-sharps. Prospero responds with lyric music (molto cantabile) in a slightly more “normal” register (though still on the high side), but Adès’s score can leap to the outermost reaches at any time.

“Well,” he told Service, “we have all the notes available; why would I not use the whole lot? They’re just one end of the keyboard and another. The trouble is the extremes are more precarious and chancy instrumentally, including the bottom notes, but to me they’re not extremes. I love that sound of the very highest octave, too, and I wish I was the kind of person who could truthfully write a whole piece that was only that sound.” Indeed he does plumb the lowest ranges as well as the highest. In Ariel’s song “Five fathoms deep,” an excerpt from Act I, Scene 5 which follows here, the first three notes chart a shocking course: first a medium D, then a high E, then a low D-sharp—these three notes alone covering the breadth of two octaves plus a semitone. Still, this is the beginning of what qualifies as a cantabile, hovering line, intoned very slowly (larghissimo) in notes of evenly paced rhythm that is accompanied by music so soft that (in the fashion of Henze) the strings play sometimes pppp and the woodwinds ppppp

We proceed to Act I, Scene 6, in which Ferdinand spies sleeping Miranda. His lovely aria expands into a trio as she awakens, with Prospero adding his voice as he and the uncharacteristically silent Ariel watch from a distance. Prospero confronts the young lovers (for they are immediately smitten with each other), again with solo music that alternates with the intricately interlocked trio texture. Act I ends with Ariel again flitting about in the Land of the High E.  This presentation of excerpts ends with an extended love duet (Act II, Scene 4) between Ferdinand and Miranda. In much of the music we have heard, the orchestra has matched the singers’ fleet virtuosity, but here it envelops the young couple in waves of dissonant harmonies that reinforce the inherent lyricism of this enchanting love music. Prospero adds a postscript, gently acknowledging that he must relinquish his daughter, that his magic has been trumped by “a stronger power than mine.”

James M. Keller

More About the Music
Recordings: The complete opera The Tempest, in a live recording from 2009, with Thomas Adès conducting the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House,Covent Garden, the Royal Opera Chorus, and a cast that includes Simon Keenlyside, Cyndia Sieden, Kate Royal, and Toby Spence (EMI Classics)

DVD: Adès conducting the complete opera with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus, and a cast that includes Simon Keenlyside, Audrey Luna, Isabel Leonard, and Alek Shrader (Deutsche Grammophon)

Reading: Thomas Adès: Full of Noises: Conversations with Tom Service (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) | Shakespeare and Opera, by Gary Schmidgall (Oxford)