The Tempest

Royal Opera

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 15 March 2007 3 stars

The Tempest

Whatever one thinks about Thomas Adès' 2004 take on Shakespeare's The Tempest, there is no doubt of the high quality and unstinting commitment of the cast. There are, indeed, five knock-out vocal performances, each of them bringing both musicality and a sense of the dramatic to the piece.

In the case of English tenor Ian Bostridge, I believe we witnessed his greatest operatic appearance to date - the performance of a lifetime, in fact. Rarely has this popular but sometimes two-dimensional singer thrown himself so wholeheartedly into a character as he does here with Caliban. And despite the occasional loss of intonation, it was literally thrilling to hear him sing with such a lack of restraint and such exciting tone.

Baritone Simon Keenlyside heads the cast as Prospero, one of the most complex and ambiguous characters in all art. I detected a darker tone to his voice, which enhanced his gravitas and bodes well for future appearances in Verdi's Macbeth and La traviata; and he is, as ever, a most compelling and intelligent actor. His daughter Miranda is played by soprano Kate Royal, who is devastatingly beautiful and opened the evening in her scene with her father with some splendidly projected and exquisitely focussed singing. She promises to be an excellent Pamina when the Royal Opera revives The Magic Flute.

Two further English tenors also impressed. Philip Langridge is luxury casting as the King of Naples - a small part, but he imbues it with plenty of interest and the voice is as burnished as ever. And Toby Spence continues to grow in stature as Prince Ferdinand, being both vocally assured and even sensual in his duet with Miranda.

The remaining singers are all equally committed, with especial praise going to Jonathan Summers' larger-than-life Sebastien and David Cordier in the unusual counter-tenor role of Trinculo. The Orchestra of the Royal Opera is in fine form, negotiating Adès' complex sound-world with ease, and the composer himself conducts with considerable inspiration.

But what of the opera itself? The best of the composition is very good indeed. Adès' evocation of the storm offers some brilliant contrapuntal writing and he shows a great talent for punctuating scenes with short, evocative orchestral interludes. There are many moments when he rises to the demands of the drama with imagination. For instance, the trio at the end of the first act shows a very fluent manipulation of the voices; Caliban's Act 2 set piece is suitably virtuosic; the Miranda-Ferdinand duet is highly sensual; and the opera has a vivid high point in the 'reconciliation quintet' in Act 3. As Tom Service's programme note points out, it is a clever use of the French dance form called a chaconne, which emphasises the first and last beats of every bar and helps the composer to build up momentum into a striking set-piece.

However - and it's a big however, inevitably prone to irk the composer's many admirers - I don't particularly see that Adès has much of an understanding of writing great opera, particularly the vocal aspect. For the most part, I felt that the drama was all in the orchestra - which Adès understands well - and rarely in the voices. Two thirds of the piece resembled recitative (to me at least) and the composer has a habit of doubling the vocal part in one instrument and having another instrument playing a melodic counterpoint in rhythmic unison, rather than providing support to the singers. Too often, the voices and orchestra move in exact tandem, putting pressure on the singers to keep rigidly to the complicated rhythms and time signatures rather than giving them freedom of expression, and too frequently silences in the vocal line are matched by silences in the orchestra. There are very few vocal arches, which gives the impression that there is little structure or direction to many of the scenes. And the character of Ariel is written for a soprano who is unwisely required to sing above the stave for most of the time (possibly a subtle gesture towards Mozart's Queen of the Night but not one that particularly paid off). I felt sorry for Cyndia Sieden, who has a lovely voice but cannot possibly communicate most of the words when she's forced to create such inhumanly high sounds.

However, perhaps Adès' real problem was in the libretto. It's amazing that one of Shakespeare's late masterpieces could be rendered quite as banal as Meredith Oakes makes it here. Shakespeare's original text is replaced by rhyming couplets of the most absurd triteness. Three examples are a sailor's declaration in Act 2 that 'I had the notion/I flew above the ocean'; a couplet in the penultimate scene, 'Stupid lies are all that's left you/You've already killed my nephew'; and Caliban's cry of 'Oh brotherhood! This drink is good'. With such pantomimic material, it's no wonder that Adès struggled; much of the text reminded me of the worst kind of Andrew Lloyd Webber libretto (think The Woman in White). As Christopher Wintle's fascinatingly revelatory article in the programme points out, there have been many attempts to set The Tempest to music; Adès' may be better than most, but it's still not entirely satisfactory.

Tom Cairns' production is for the most part spectacular and I still liked the central piece of scenery, a large hinged book that suggests Prospero's tome of magic spells. I was less thrilled by some of the fake animals, however, and there was still a clash between some hyperrealism (a video projection of the sea) and prosaic symbolism (a cardboard cut-out of a sinking ship in the opening scene).

In all, it's a five-star performance of a three-star opera, one which will surely never live up to the best of Britten (as some have claimed). Still, the cast really is worth the trip, especially with tickets at an absurdly cheap price (£4 to £50), and the company should be supported for their enthusiastic investment in new works such as this.

By Dominic McHugh