Music is central to the very fabric of Shakespeare’s late masterpiece The Tempest, so it is hardly surprising that this play has inspired more operas than any other Shakespearian work.
Grand-Opéra in three acts
Libretto by Eugène Scribe
Adapted in Italian by Pietro Giannone
Edited by CMT-Marco Calderara
Sung in Italian with English surtitles
First performance: Her Majesty’s Theatre, London, 1850
One of musical history’s most tantalisingly unfulfilled projects is the libretto that Mozart accepted shortly before he died, and the list composers who followed him to Prospero’s island has been brought up to date in this century by Thomas Adès.
Fromental Halévy’s La tempesta is among the most intriguing of many half-forgotten adaptations, a work in which several national traditions come together, with the creators of one of the most famous French grand-opéras of the 19th-century taking on Italian tradition in London — and appropriating Shakespeare in his own city. Adding to that mix was the then-recent memory of Mendelssohn having contemplated a Tempest opera for London. But it was Halévy, making a rare excursion away from the Parisian theatres where he was a longstanding fixture, who gave London La tempesta, premiered at Her Majesty’s Theatre in 1850.
Even though the premiere was judged a success, La tempesta soon disappeared from sight, and that despite the high pedigree of its creators. Its libretto (in an Italian adaptation by Pietro Giannone) was by none other than Eugène Scribe, the great wordsmith behind many of the 19th-century’s most successful operas. And Halévy himself — composer of some 40 operas — is a fascinating figure now remembered mainly for La Juive, the only one of his grand-opéras still heard regularly today. Even Wagner admired him, sparing him the anti-Semitic abuse he directed at Meyerbeer and Mendelssohn. Through the marriage of his daughter Geneviève, Halévy became Georges Bizet’s father-in-law, and it was left to Bizet to complete Halévy’s last opera, Noè, after the senior composer’s death. As for Geneviève, she was the inspiration for two characters in Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu. There are many layers of memory here.
The survivors of a shipwreck — including the King of Naples and Prospero’s treacherous brother Antonio — are tormented by a storm conjured up by the magician Prospero himself with help from his spirit-servant Ariel. But his resentful slave Caliban plots against him. Ariel is summoned to protect the young lovers Miranda (Prospero’s daughter) and Ferdinand (the king’s son), but Caliban succeeds in abducting Miranda. Drinking with shipwrecked sailors, Caliban enlists their help but is thwarted when they find Ferdinand and recognise him as their prince. With the wave of his wand, Ariel transforms the scene into a palace hall where Miranda and Ferdinand celebrate their wedding. In a happy ending, all except Caliban prepare to sail back to Naples.