Just two evenings—although it now seems longer ago—before the storm that devastated New York and provoked fresh awareness of what it actually is like to live on an island, I was contemplating an imaginary island and a storm made of lighting effects, swirling fabric, and bars of music on the stage of the Met, the opening moments of Thomas Adès’s opera The Tempest. It was certainly a rare occasion—when was the last time the Met presented a contemporary opera with the composer conducting? The work has attracted wide international attention since its Covent Garden premiere in 2004, but this is its first New York appearance. I had not heard a note of the score until the previous evening, when cast members and Met orchestra members participated with Adès in a brief recital at Le Poisson Rouge, the classically oriented music club in Greenwich Village, mixing two brief excerpts from the opera with other Tempest-related material by Purcell, Stravinsky, Tippett, Ives, and Sibelius, a program involving among other things no less than five settings of Ariel’s song “Full fathom five.”
Of these the most disconcerting was without doubt Adès’s, written in a line that careened from one end to another of a high soprano register straining the limits of the human voice, although Laure Meloy survived it. (On stage, the role of Ariel, as sung by Audrey Luna, became the galvanizing force of the production.) Placed immediately following the Purcell, it seemed designed to dispel any notion that this Tempest would offer a feast of airy island melody of the sort that in Ferdinand’s words “crept by me upon the waters,/Allaying both their fury and my passion/With its sweet air.” This Ariel evidently inhabited an air closer to the edge of the ozone layer, exercising not so much enchantment as paralyzing unearthliness. Later in the program Simon Keenlyside—who originated the role of Prospero in 2004 and is repeating it at the Met—established instant authority as he sang the very brief passage setting librettist Meredith Oakes’s compacted version of the famous fourth-act speech:
Our revels are ended
Why do you stare?
He’s melted into air
So cities will perish
The globe itself
All will fade
These are two of the most powerful moments in the score, but they needed the full opera for their weight to be felt. In Thomas Adès: Full of Noises, an absorbing book of interviews with the critic Tom Service, Adès has described opera as “a sort of fate that the characters are going to be subjected to,” and it’s evident he means a sonic fate, the consequences of a musical logic.* The spells at work…
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