Scenes from "The Tempest" (U.S. Concert premiere)
Length: 30 minutes
Orchestration: 3 flutes (3rd = piccolo), 3 oboes (3rd = English horn), 3 clarinets, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons (3rd = contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, crotale, small and large suspended cymbals, glockenspiel, hand bells, log drum, side drum, tam-tam, triangle), upright piano, strings, chorus, and soloists [Ariel, high soprano; Prospero, high baritone; Miranda, soprano; Ferdinand, tenor].
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performances (U.S. concert premiere)
Since Adès emerged on the international radar over a decade ago, he's been cast as an especially fresh and innovative voice. But particularly in his theater works, Adès has also embraced the solid, old-fashioned values of fully dimensional musical characterizations, as these scenes extracted from The Tempest abundantly demonstrate. Part of Adès's achievement in this score is to ground his ever-fertile imagination in a dramaturgy of Verdian practicality and a technique whose kaleidoscopic brilliance recalls Strauss.
Adès and his librettist Meredith Oakes wisely opted to avoid direct competition with Shakespeare's own incomparable word-music, instead retooling the play into a simpler, eminently singable libretto of rhymed couplets. The scenes here from Act One (the opera comprises three acts) begin after Prospero has explained to his daughter Miranda the treachery that led to their being marooned.
The cycle is now about to repeat as his enemies themselves have been shipwrecked on the island. Swifter than thought, Ariel is summoned by Prospero to help stage manage the fate of these newcomers. Adès captures the quicksilver sprite in indelible musical terms by employing a vertiginously acrobatic tessitura for high soprano, well above the staff (Ariel's rapid series of high Es would give Zerbinetta a workout).
Ariel interacts with Prospero very much as a counterpart to Caliban, both of whom are enslaved by the magician. (The scene immediately following introduces Caliban - in place of the usual monster, a hybrid beast and human, the opera casts him as a tenor, who is given some of the score's most luminously eloquent music.) In the next exchange, Ariel chafes at his servitude; Prospero brusquely recalls the earlier misfortune from which he freed Ariel. Earlier, Adès had suggested how Prospero's inner wrath - the opera emphasizes his need for vengeance - musically generates the storm which began the act.
The shift to the act's final scene is breathtaking: Ariel's immense intervallic leaps give the (false) report that Ferdinand's father has died, but they convey the truth of the magical "sea-change" that most of the characters will undergo on the island. Music, as Adès well knows, is a principal agent of that change, and Ferdinand responds immediately. The scene of his first meeting with Miranda - as each thinks the other is more than human - illustrates, in the opera's terms, how love creates its own bewitchment that the magician cannot manipulate. Prospero is here far less an enlightened but omnipotent Sarastro than a vulnerable Wotan who also comes to learn, reluctantly, that his daughter has her own will.
The final scene excerpted here (from the end of Act Two) involves the full awakening of love between Miranda and Ferdinand. It's so effective precisely because it comes as Ferdinand experiences his deepest sense of loss and aloneness (still thinking his father dead). Prospero's lust for vengeance entails magnifying this grief on the part of his enemies, but he hasn't planned on the possibility of love's consolation. Adès sustains the wonder of both young lovers as they dare to encounter a brave new world of feeling: a moment that dwarfs the illusions of magic, as Prospero is now aware.
- Thomas May is senior music editor at Amazon.com and author of Decoding Wagner as well as the forthcoming John Adams Reader.