As soon as the overture started, I decided I was probably in for a very entertaining evening. Not because I particularly liked the overture, but because there were interesting lighting effects, glowing abstract shapes on the stage, Simon Keenlyside floating through the air (presumably on wires, unless he has mastered the art of levitation – which I wouldn’t put past him as he is brilliant) twirling his magic staff like Wotan crossed with a drum majorette, and a glowing lime green lady wearing what appeared to be bondage gear also floating around on wires, and doing somersaults to boot. When the gauze curtain rose, it was to reveal a set which mostly consisted of a giant model of my current laptop (white iBook) with a hole in it, a glowing lime green rock, and a glowing blue, er, tubey thing. The big laptop could open, close, and rotate, and sometimes had a bit of shipwreck stuck to it. Later there was a glowing red box (in which Toby Spence was stuck for the majority of the time), and in Act 3 there was the addition of some plastic dinosaurs. And very attractive the whole thing was, too. Regarding costumes, the chorus and minor characters had fairly normal-looking clothes, but Prospero, Caliban and Ariel (and spirit chums) had a half-and-half * thing going on, with different costumes for their right and left arms. Prospero (Keenlyside) looked rather attractive in half a tailcoat, thick specs and sprayed-upright grey hair; Caliban (Ian Bostridge) looked like (half) a punk rocker with a dodgy peroxide mullet and big feathery trousers stolen from Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake; Ariel & co looked genuinely non-human.
What’s that? I’m talking about the look of the performance before getting on to the music? Well, yes. While I certainly didn’t find any of the music unpleasant, it did take some time to grow on me. I don’t think I’ve heard any of Adès’ music before, and while I would be quite interested to hear some more, I don’t think I’d go too far out of my way to do so. The louder, more chaotic bits didn’t do a lot for me, but what I did like more and more as the opera progressed were the slower, more sparsely-textured, reflective passages. It was also very effective when, after comparatively atonal sections, there were brief forays into ‘conventional’ harmony, almost resolving before slipping back out again. It also helped that the majority of the singing was of an excellent standard. Apart from Keenlyside, of course, I was also pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed Bostridge’s bits, having in my (admittedly very limited) previous experience found him to be somewhat drippy. Toby Spence (Ferdinand) also made a very pleasant sound, even when stuck in a box. As did Philip Langridge (King of Naples) and Kate Royal (Miranda).
I have read somewhere or other that the role of Ariel has the highest tessitura of, well, any operatic role, and that Cyndia Sieden had to do a massive amount of extra training to be able to sustain in long lines the sort of notes that the Queen of the Night briefly squeaks. As a lover of all things bass-y, it seemed likely I would appreciate this about as much as I appreciate countertenors (i.e. not a lot), but actually I thought she/it was brilliant. The acrobatic leaping around up and down the octaves was impressive, but the quiet sustained lines were haunting and lovely. She was like the vocal equivalent of a piccolo (a very well-played one, obviously), which appealed to me. Talking of well-played piccolos, Philip Rowson and the flute section were on excellent form, and Mr Adès had thoughtfully given them plenty to do, including many nicely bittersweet dissonant but melodic bits. In fact, the combination of Ariel’s stratospheric voice accompanied by flute section was particularly effective.
There was one thing which I did find a bit irritating throughout the opera, and that was the words. Only personal opinion, of course, but I found Meredith Oakes’ libretto (“after Shakespeare”) easily the weakest point of the work, and the constant rhyming couplets particularly naff. It seems somewhat odd to me to base an opera on a work by Shakespeare, and then discard Shakespeare’s words in favour of a not-so-good poet, but I’m sure there was a sound reason. Besides, the lady sitting in front of me said she liked the rhymes, so it’s not a consensus.
On the whole, definitely to be recommended, but firstly for the cool visuals and secondly for the music. I’d listen to it if it came on the radio, but wouldn’t buy the CD.
* Can anyone explain to me the relevance of the half-clothes?