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Composed: 2022

Length: c. 22 minutes

Orchestration: 3 flutes (2nd & 3rd=piccolo), 3 oboes, 3 clarinets, 3 bassoons (3rd=contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (crotales, glockenspiel, keyboard glockenspiel, handbell, triangle, cymbals, sheet metal, tam-tam, small whip, 3 snare drums, geophone, and bass drum), harp, upright piano, and strings

About this Piece

Thomas Adès’ take on Shakespeare’s fantasy The Tempest marked a defining moment early in his career. Premiered at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, in 2004, when the composer was just 33 years old, Adès’ opera was overwhelmingly acclaimed by audiences and critics alike. In the following decade, Covent Garden revived its production, and the opera made its way to houses in Copenhagen, Strasbourg, Santa Fe, Vienna, Québec City, and New York—an impressive number of productions for a contemporary opera.

Adès and Meredith Oakes, the opera’s librettist, created a synthesis of music and text that’s surgically precise in how it communicates the moral themes and individual traits of Shakespeare’s cast of characters. For Adès, the ultimate goal was to compose “a symphonic opera,” a work “driven by the musical logic at least as much as by the logic of the drama itself.”

But Adès and Oakes do much more than paint a mesmerizing musical portrait of the play’s fantastical world. Rather, they add flesh, blood, and psychological depth to the characters, showcasing the range of human emotion lurking in the shadowy underbelly of the play—including positioning Prospero as a man driven by his loss of power and a profound sense of wrath festering within.

“Prospero’s relationship with the island is a metaphor for somebody who is cut off from his own life, cannot assume his role,” Adès said in conversation with the BBC’s Tom Service. “First, he was usurped from Milan; but the island isn’t his either. The island is basically a kind of depression, and he has to make everybody else suffer it in order to dig his way out, because he has to prove to himself the redundancy of his power.”

Gone is the Byronic hero of Shakespeare’s text. In Adès’ Tempest, Prospero’s political downfall and subsequent exile transform him into a somewhat sadistic, vengeance-driven contagion. One who will stop at nothing to inflict fear and suffering on those around him—not only the Milanese court that usurped him 12 years before the play begins, but also the two indigenous figures he enslaves on the island: the air spirit Ariel and the monster Caliban, who are forced to carry out many of Prospero’s cruel plans. From the storm that makes castaways of his opponents to the many illusory traps and horrific visions he orders Ariel to create to terrify them, Prospero’s obsessive desire for retribution is the engine that runs the opera—which ultimately makes his inevitable journey to reconciliation all the more satisfying.

Composed in 2022, Five Spells from The Tempest retains much of Adès and Oakes’ overarching characterization of the play, condensing north of two hours of music into a 20-minute quintet of movements that traces the opera’s sequence of events while maintaining the musical logic so important to the opera’s structure.

In the “Overture (Storm),” Adès unleashes the tempest’s full power from the very first bar. A relentless rush of sharply attacked notes from every section of the orchestra drives the music forward with increasing fury until we land on a deep, bombastic chord in which we can imagine the ship capsizing in real time.

The second and third movements present a pair of contrasting character studies. First, “Ariel and Prospero” showcases the stratospheric vocal lines Adès writes for the coloratura soprano performing Ariel, demanding musical acrobatics taken up in the symphony by flutes, oboes, and clarinets. Here Ariel reports on the shipwrecked visitors, and Prospero recounts his plan not to harm them immediately but rather to launch a cat-and-mouse game of terror. “Ferdinand and Miranda” paints with shimmering orchestral textures the meeting of Prospero’s daughter, Miranda, and Ferdinand, the son of Prospero’s archenemy, the King of Naples. It’s love at first sight, much to Prospero’s disappointment.

“The Feast” brings us to Act III, where Ariel creates a mirage of a banquet for two of the shipwrecked characters, which the starving men interpret as a gift from heaven. A solo tuba imitates a noble soliloquy in which the wise counselor Gonzalo dreams of ruling over a utopic land where mankind knows no crime, there is no need for money, and every person can delightfully savor such a feast (a moment that’s brutally cut short in the opera as Ariel transforms into a harpy leading a pack of vicious dogs).

“Prospero’s Farewell—Caliban” is taken from the opera’s closing pages, where Prospero relinquishes his magical abilities and breaks his staff—actions that set the enslaved Ariel and Caliban free. Strings tremble as Prospero makes his final plea for Ariel to stay by his side, with oboes taking up the spirit’s ethereal vocalise. As Ariel departs the stage, Caliban alone contemplates the chaos he’s witnessed and what to make of the “human seeming” intruders who dominated the island for 12 years. —© Michael Cirigliano II

Michael Cirigliano II is a freelance writer who has worked with the Cleveland Orchestra, Oregon Symphony, LA Phil, Minnesota Orchestra, Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.