New Magic for 'The Tempest' ; Thomas Ades Conjures Shakespeare's Language into the Present Day

By Service, Tom | International Herald Tribune, October 24, 2012 | Go to article overview

New Magic for 'The Tempest' ; Thomas Ades Conjures Shakespeare's Language into the Present Day


Service, Tom, International Herald Tribune


The English composer Thomas Ades has distilled Shakespeare's language into formalized rhymes that allow his music enough space to conjure the magic of the opera in "The Tempest."

The 41-year-old English composer Thomas Ades is not the first to have thought to write an opera on "The Tempest." Shakespeare's play of magic, illusion and music has exerted a siren-like power over composers from Purcell to Sibelius, from Ligeti to Berio.

But more often than not, "The Tempest" has been a dramatic island on which musical ambitions have been shipwrecked as surely as the denizens of the Neapolitan court.

In fact, until the premiere of Mr. Ades's opera at the Royal Opera House here in 2004, setting the whole story on the opera stage seemed a virtually impossible task.

Mr. Ades spoke about the dangers of embarking on "The Tempest" for our book, "Full of Noises," published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux:

"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. The medium of opera demands more radical restrictions in order to work than that of spoken drama."

Mr. Ades's solution -- he is conducting the Metropolitan Opera's production by Robert Lepage -- was to ask the Australian playwright Meredith Oakes to write a libretto.

"I wanted something that would make a geometry from the play, a more right-angled geometry, in two ways," he said. "Firstly in the language itself, from line to line, and secondly in the plot."

That geometry meant distilling Shakespeare's language into formalized rhymes that would allow Mr. Ades's music enough space to conjure the magic of the opera. As a result, your favorite speeches from "The Tempest" are rendered recognizable yet strange. Ariel's "Full fathom five thy father lies" becomes "Five fathoms deep/Your father lies."

"I knew omitting these things would leave one open to listeners saying, 'Well, it's not like Shakespeare,"' he said. "Of course it's not. That's a play, this is not."

Mr. Ades's music for "The Tempest" did something even more ambitious. When you look at his whole career, the opera is like an inspirational maelstrom at the center of his output. The score built on the heightened expressive power of his previous music (Richard Taruskin called him "a surrealist composer" in 1999, describing the vertiginous energy of his orchestral work "Asyla") and opened up a new musical universe that he has been exploring ever since.

In writing "The Tempest," Mr. Ades discovered uncharted musical terrain. In the opera he created a new kind of tonal language that was as direct and communicative as it needed to be to tell Shakespeare's story but was also indelibly contemporary.

You hear the power and possibility of this idiom right at the start of "The Tempest," in Mr. Ades's realization of Prospero's magical storm. The music immediately plunges listeners into a world of explosive energy and luminous color so that they are cast adrift on the seascape that Prospero has unleashed.

Mr. Ades gives each of his characters distinctive musical melodies but ensures that their music relates and resonates with one another's.

The score is full of sensuousness and surprises: Ariel's music, cast for a stratospheric soprano; Caliban's Act II aria, "Friends don't fear/The island's full of noises"; Ferdinand and Miranda's love duet; the final reconciliation quintet just before the end of the opera: These are all unmissable moments. …

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