Time and again in the weeks since the Metropolitan Opera opening of The Tempest, post-concert gatherings longer than five minutes soon get round to the question, muttered semi-intelligibly with a vague air of shame.
“What did you think of The Tempest”?
One British critic had said that this, Thomas Adès’s second opera, was the most important British event of its kind since Peter Grimes. Nearly all the New York critics – including the important ones – had high praise.
Oh dear. Does this mean that our brains are boiled if we didn’t like it?
Boiled or not, I haven’t felt like such a culture victim since I saw Macbeth performed in Zulu without surtitles. Upon hearing my displeasure, friends express great relief. It seems that if your weren’t on board with the piece, you disliked it immensely – and not because it stirred up some interior, personal issue. There were earmarks of a great composer at work, and some impressive set pieces, but as a whole, I wondered how it got so far – and did so in print on WQXR’s Operavore blog.
Dissonance in Adès’s score is not the problem; if you couldn’t handle that, you probably wouldn’t have committed to seeing The Tempest in the first place. Rather, this supposedly Peter Grimes-calibre work seemed to be much ado about little. Though the opera gave me a certain amount of information about the characters, I felt nothing for them, no matter how hard I tried. They weren’t cold so much as they were clinical, more diagrammed than fleshed out.
“All he did was write chords with a lot of minor seconds and move them around a bit,” said one composer who is nearly as famous as Adès. “And how did he get away with that vocal writing?”
“The whole thing was completely unnecessary,” declared a fellow critic.
“It’s not terrible, just blandly poor,” wrote an industry professional in an email. “I’m just stunned that it has had such an afterlife – but then the public has such a low set of expectations for new work in big houses, and the Germans in particular must have found it a relief from singing penises and vulvas. Plus, like it or not, the British press has a huge international influence, so that helped The Tempest a lot.”
Almost nobody complained about the libretto at any length. That went without saying. One friend used four words: “Doggerel without the fun.” And when Simon Keenlyside took a break from playing Prospero and sang the title role in a concert version of Wozzeck on Nov. 19 with the Philharmonia Orchestra at Avery Fisher Hall, he had so much detail, color and well-considered physicality that his Tempest showings were, according to some observers, comparatively unengaged.
Let us not be vengeful. We can walk away from The Tempest. Adès has committed to sticking around and conducting it.