Thomas Adès, pragmatic contemporary

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In the 20th century, there was an opera mystique, the mystique of the impossible and often single work: Schönberg never managed to find a satisfying conclusion to Moses und Aaron, and Messiaen, at age 75 and after eight years of work, delivered an outrageous and fascinating Saint Francis. And then there are others, composers who have long, continuous and productive careers, like Britten or Henze. Thomas Adès, a 45-year-old English composer, is one of the latter. The work commissioned of him by Alexander Pereira in 2012, which replaced the future first opera of nonagenarian György Kurtág, still unfinished, was of course only his third opera, but his first two were sufficient to demonstrate that Adès understands the concept of musical theatre.

Yet what a difference between these two works! The first, Powder Her Face, which débuted in Cheltenham in 1995, might be categorised as a continuation of Britten’s chamber operas, with his crew of some fifteen musicians and his compact, under-two-hours structure, but the subject matter, which takes more from the popular press than from the usual sources of inspiration of Britain’s leading opera figure. The heroine is of course a duchess, but her story is explosive: the story of a fall, brought about by sex and other ingredients. The success of the opera, which continues to be reprised for new productions, comes partly from the sensational subject matter but also partly from the limited manpower it requires, making it inexpensive to stage; but of course it is also due to Adès’s music, his irony and his fondness for the central character.


World Premiere at the Salzburg Festival 2016, The Exterminating Angel (adapted from Luis Buñuel's movie) is set behind closed doors. ‘It’s territory that I like very much because it looks as though the people are in a room, but it’s not really about the room, they’re actually trapped in their own heads’ says the composer Thomas Adès.

Ten years later, the setting was more prestigious – the Royal Opera – the orchestra substantially larger, and the subject matter more classic. It was the very quintessence of classic British culture, Shakespeare’s The Tempest, which served as libretto, and this time Adès benefited from the finest that the British school of singing has to offer. Just to mention the tenors involved in its début: Toby Spence, Ian Bostridge, John Daszak, Philip Langridge! Adès does not write his music for specialised performers, and the undeniable public success of the opera, which was reprised notably in 2012 at the Met, also has to do with the fact that he writes for real opera voices which he allows to shine: in addition to this lovely group of tenors, the role of Ariel was given to a coloratura soprano tasked with giving voice to the acrobatics of Shakespeare’s elf. Taken all together, the music can be considered a fine example of a sort of composite style that is, undoubtedly, the mark of much of opera composition over the last ten or twenty years. Adès is not heir to the school of musical rigour, represented in highly diverse forms by the Vienna school, Boulez, or, today, Salvatore Sciarrino, who for that matter has composed some of the masterpieces of the recent repertory; but neither is he enamoured of the syrupy facileness of the proponents of a style hooked on tonality and melody, inspired by Puccini or Korngold, such as can be found in abundance on the other side of the Atlantic. Adès is familiar with and able to employ contemporary composition techniques; he knows how to write the most identifiable and consonant melodies imaginable. His work as composer therefore consists of juggling all these styles and influences, not out of a desire for virtuosity but to take into account the libretto’s most heterogeneous components.

From this standpoint, The Tempest had gratifyingly useful material: between the monster Caliban and the innocent Miranda, the courtiers of the shipwrecked boat and stern Prospero, the love scenes and shipwrecks, there was enough for a succession of the most diverse styles, all in the tradition of a colourful and expressive orchestra.

In Salzburg, he was inspired by Buñuel’s Exterminating Angel,  with the collaboration of the stage director Tom Cairns, who participated in the début of The Tempest: Shakespeare is quite far from this very Latin American story of dinner guests who find themselves in the grip of a vague force that prevents them from leaving; Salzburg audiences may recognize themselves in it, especially as these ladies and gentlemen had attended an opera performance. With the gallery of improbable, flamboyant and grotesque portraits that such a story offers Adès, his deliberate aesthetic eclecticism will certainly be put to good use.

The very large cast, featuring great names like Anne Sofie von OtterThomas Allen and John Tomlinson rubbing elbows with the younger generation, from Amanda Echalaz to Frédéric Antoun and Audrey Luna, means we can be sure there will be some fine singing. The list of co-producers is evidence that the opera world is not expecting this new opera to fail: after Salzburg, the Royal Opera, the Met and the Copenhagen Opera will be presenting it. And tomorrow, the rest of the world.

Dominique Adrian

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