Just over a week after Christopher Plummer brought his artful Prospero to the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, it seemed the ideal time to venture into Thomas Adès’ musical rendition of the Bard’s magical tale of freedom and revenge.
Meredith Oakes’s libretto is immensely poetic, couplet-rich and eminently singable. The live performance can’t avoid the stage-traffic noise, but the steady flow and obviously engaged audience more than make up for the a-musical sounds. Adès conducts his score with authority and the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House—except for the violins’ tentative excursions to the stratosphere—serves up the engaging orchestrations with fine flair and commendable balance. Not nearly as secure is the Royal Opera Chorus whose frequent lapses of ensemble—much of the cause can be traced back to the podium—detract from the overall result.
The cast is uniformly splendid. Knowing the voices for whom many of the parts were created is a huge boon to any composer and pays off spectacularly, adding an air of congeniality that brings yet another layer of excellence to the solo lines and few ensembles.
It would be hard to imagine anyone better suited for the extreme range demands of Ariel than Cyndia Sieden. “Five fathoms deep” is a tour de force of technique before “You are men of sin” slips deliciously into the dark side; “Children born of mortal strife” delights and the opera’s final “A-i-e” vanishes wondrously into Caliban’s dreamy imagination.
A stroke of musical and dramatic genius is writing the island’s resident monster as a tenor, where, at first glance, a brooding bass-baritone might be expected. The higher voice (sung beautifully by Ian Bostridge who also underscored the creature’s subtext with empathetic understanding) reinforced the often-neglected plight of the ugly slave: just as Prospero had been brutally pushed aside by his nefarious brother, the deposed duke had no qualms about returning the favour to the island’s orphaned ruler. Giving Caliban the last word (rather than Shakespeare’s telling epilogue for Prospero) confirms the artistic vision of the creators, taking the permeating notion of freedom down a far different road than the playwright travelled.
As the well-read magician, Simon Keenlyside crafted a carefully nuanced portrait of the vengeful commander of spirits “Their brains are boiled with their skulls” is but one example of musical realization of living a life of hell on earth.
Kate Royal proves a charming Miranda (not quite as awe-struck by men as the original); Toby Spence is more than credible as her intended. Their love duet as Act II winds down (oddly reminiscent of Rodolfo and Mimi’s declaration in La Bohème) perfectly sets the stage for Prospero’s realization that love has set them free—something he never expects. Given the narrative adjustments, it’s hardly coincidental that when Prospero utters the last word “free” to close Act II he refers to another (Stefano) rather than himself at the conclusion of the original text.
Absolutely superb is Graeme Danby’s Gonzalo. His rich, resonant tone is only topped by the ability to make every note reveal character as much as musical intent. The statement of “What they did long ago” is given with marvellous irony by the only honest elder in either the houses of Milan or Naples.
Trinculo, the perpetual drunk, was well served by David Cordier whose voice was as high as his state; Jonathan Summers was appropriately dark and dastardly playing Sebastian whose regal brother was brought to woeful life thanks to Philip Langridge’s especially solid legato.
The music as a whole has a wide range of colours and styles with hints of The Flying Dutchman here and A Midsummer Night’s Dream there. With so much illusion on the stage, the ear searched largely in vain for some truly magical scoring before finally being rewarded as the court and company were wondrously fed. Similarly, but with a much more satisfying payoff, there was an ever-growing wish for a true vocal ensemble (with so many excellent voices, it seemed a shame to miss the chance). When it finally arrived (“How good they are, how bright, how grand”), the moment was unforgettable as the innocent lovers and a pair of grizzled fathers found hope and closure respectively.
This happy convergence of old and new, revenge and forgiveness brilliantly set up by all that came before make this opera just as timeless as the play and a thoughtfully valid view of the underlying themes. JWR