Photo Journal: Thomas Ads's The Tempest Takes U.S. Critics by Storm

Classic Arts News   Photo Journal: Thomas Ads's The Tempest Takes U.S. Critics by Storm
 
One of the highlights of Santa Fe Opera's 50th anniversary season has been the American debut of Thomas Ads's first full-scale opera, The Tempest, whose world premiere with the Royal Opera in London two years ago won lavish acclaim.

Ads "uses Shakespeare's play as a pretext and makes what he will of the characters and plot, single-mindedly following the thread of Prospero's vengeance and, ultimately, grudging mercy," wrote James R. Oestreich in The New York Times. The libretto by Meredith Oakes, he observed, streamlines the original Shakespearean plot, using newly-written rhyming couplets while avoiding most of the best-known lines from its model.

The Philadelphia Inquirer's David Patrick Stearns wrote that it's hard to describe Ads' music because he uses such a wide range of compositional techniques. "So you had an Ariel (sung by Cyndia Sieden with superhuman technique) whose vocal lines suggested The Magic Flute's Queen of the Night on crack; magical elements dramatized by a unique timbre from combined piano and bells; plus thick, full string writing with Brittenesque astringency and a lack of key center that allows the music to quickly seesaw through conflicting emotions."

In The San Francisco Chronicle, Joshua Kosman also described the music's eclecticism, saying, "In transplanting Shakespeare's most music-ridden work to the operatic stage, Ads fits it out with a wealth of musical sounds — now rapturous, now ethereal, now blunt and hard-edged — that both conjure up and reorient the work's distinctively elusive tone."

The music that Ads has assigned to Ariel has been notorious ever since the opera's initial rehearsals in London: the vocal line spends most of its length in the super-high range that Zerbinetta and the Queen of the Night only hit for occasional effect. While more than one critic protests that the stratospheric writing makes Ariel's words unintelligible (exactly the effect that the composer says he sought), Cyndia Sieden gets unanimous acclaim for her spectacular skill in executing the role.

Baritone Rod Gilfry was also praised as Prospero, as was the conductor Alan Gilbert, who, according to the New York Times's Oestreich, "negotiated the difficult score with a sure hand, and the orchestra, in its major, often dominating, role, responded wit skill and panache."

Craig Smith of Santa Fe's The New Mexican commended Patricia Risley, who sang Miranda, for her "amber-toned mezzo-soprano," Toby Spence for his "ardent, silver-voiced Ferdinand," and Will Ferguson, whose "Caliban was a wonder."

Readers of that paper, however, demonstrated the typical gulf between critical and public opinion. One disgruntled reader wrote "This production was an abject musical failure. I can't improve on the description as banal." Another said he found the opera to be "a midden heap of an opera, a banal libretto married to a score composer seemingly of random blowing into horns or sawing across strings."

The Chronicle's Kosman thought that evidence of Ads's theatrical inexperience surfaced in the "mundane passages of dialogue and action that move the opera from one set piece to the next. These tend to lumber a bit," adding, however, that "as a series of brilliantly conceived theatrical scenes, The Tempest never flags."

The Tempest, which runs through August 17, is one of five new productions in Santa Fe Opera's 2006 summer season.


All photos by Ken Howard.


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