The Tempest

Review by Polly Hope

THE TEMPEST. Thomas Ades

The Royal Opera House Covent Garden London. Spring MMV11

Ades' TEMPEST is the hyped up intellectual happening of this spring. A-must-see-don't-miss-event. I thought I better check it out having missed the premiere by being on a plane somewhere. Full house and an audience waiting to be enthralled on a desert island. A chattering classes special this one. Dinner table enthusiasm and wordy puffs in the newspapers make this production the flavour of the year.

So I went to see what the hullabaloo was about. Thomas Ades is everywhere this season; concerts and workshops and lectures and interviews. Heralded as our brightest young composer, the shining genius and so forth. I am afraid to say that so-called young Mr Ades is already older than either Mozart or Schubert were when they died. Then we really have these days taken to growing up very late. But that's a different discussion.

THE TEMPEST is a big production and the opera house has pulled out all stops in its extravagant staging. The work is absolutely modern, booth to listen to and to look at. The epitome of what modernism was about; I would believe you if you told me that this production was a reconstruction, down to the last detail, from the 1920's such as we are shown done of Diagaliev's works. I simply can't believe that this is a 'new' work and full of so called new ideas. Little wonder it is greeted with enthusiasm as everyone knows now what modernism is. They know when to clap and how clever it is to write tuneless and emotionless music.

The opera is one long miserable howl from beginning to end, all the performers are having a quite dreadful and unhappy time, yet The Tempest is not a misery piece, it is full of warm human beings and has a happy ending, though to be sure there are some weirdoes to deal with en route, plus a very tricky magician who, in the play, speaks some of he greatest poetry ever written.

Meredith Oakes is responsible for the libretto; I think she might be wise to take her name off it. Not that it really matters, as not a single word is audible. These singers are superb musically and are known for their intelligent singing of complicated texts and wish to be understood, however here they haven't a chance in this barrage of crashing notes. Not a word is audible. If one didn't know the story one would be lost as to what all the shouting is about.

The Prospero of Simon Keenyside is not a formidable magician; I took him for the island gardener for quite a long time. This is a difficult role in any production, Prospero is a complicated person, and he should be looked up to, feared, admired and loved. Mr Keenyside is very ordinary; I would be worried having him run even a very small island.

Our favourite local tenor, Ian Bostridge, is here playing Caliban, however that loathsome crawling creature has become a tall and handsome transvestite dressed in frilly knickers, a corset and a blond wig. Surely some mistake?

Kate Royal sings Miranda, Miss Royal is a tall and good-looking woman who rushes about the stage as if playing hockey for the school team.

Other members of the cast are dressed in falling apart naval gear, shows they are shipwrecked I suppose.

The only character who has a bit of edge is Ariel, sung by Cyndia Sieden wearing a green and black stripy outfit and who lives in a round hole in a cement block. Her arias are real show off pieces of complicated coloratura trills and arpeggios seemingly performed without a breath ever being taken. A quite amazing technical feat, [the audience did clap her once.] I am not sure how these show off arias fitted into the plot, but at least they were weird.

The set was amazing; it looked as though they had lifted it straight from the Festival of Britain 1951. A vast white slab hovers over the stage and during the performance tilts down and up and slowly turns. It is white and looks like an early Hepworth because of the round hole that Ariel likes to jump in and out of. It certainly must have cost a bob or two to construct. Then to jolly the island up a bit there is a bright blue neon abstract sculpture down stage right, and a red cube lit up which performers sometimes sit on, and a day-glo yellow rock downstage left. I quite liked the rock. Then to finish off the set of a lost tropical island there are a couple of dinosaurs, probably borrowed from the Natural History Museum. Not a deserted beach, but a smart urban environment, which might have been carried over the Thames from Tate Modern.

Ades conducted his opera wearing a short-sleeved black T-shirt, which exposed his chubby white arrms. I guess the guys on the timpani at the back could at least see them and come in at the right moment. He can't much like his work to dress thus.

The people sitting round me did not like what they saw, though they applauded enough at the end. Yet another case of The Emperor's New Clothes. Such a pity as there is a big following for new opera and yet no one is giving this hungry audience the soul food it needs.

Tom Cairns directed and helped with designing the sets. I wonder what he meant exactly with this production?

I don't think I'll be buying the C.D of this one.