ProsperoThe Tempest

Music by Sally Beamish

Birmingham Royal Ballet


Ballet review

THE history of recent British music is littered with ballets that have fallen by the wayside. Where are Constant Lambert’s Romeo and Juliet, Alan Rawsthorne’s Madame Chrysanthème, Arthur Bliss’s Adam Zero and Miracle in the Gorbals, Peter Maxwell Davies’ Salome or William Walton’s The Quest?

Britten’s Prince of the Pagodas has begun to receive revivals. And so, one might hope, will the late composer John McCabe’s two-part Arthur, and brilliantly devised, graphic Edward II, both staged since the millennium by David Bintley’s Birmingham Royal Ballet, the last now impressively recorded by Hyperion Records.

There are almost 50 sets of incidental music to Shakespeare’s Tempest, spanning the 17th to the 20th centuries, and including Sibelius, Honegger, Humperdinck, albeit most now largely if not forgotten, at least ignored.

Iain Mackay as Prospero

A few composers have gone so far as to base whole operas on Shakespeare’s last play: the Czech Zdeňek Fibich (Prague, 1893-4) is one of the more notable, but pride of place has now been usurped by Thomas Adès’ stagework for Covent Garden, which is still making its way round the opera houses of Europe and has achieved deserved success wherever it tours.

Even though perhaps half a dozen ballets on the subject have been devised in the past half century, a contemporary ballet treatment is just what was called for, and David Bintley’s dance staging of The Tempest is a joy from start to finish – even at the curtain calls, the energy and invention of the piece’s endlessly inventive choreography does not flag for a moment. As a brilliant danced tribute to the Shakespeare quatercentenary, this sensational, blossoming, richly rewarding brand new Tempest surely makes a handsome contribution.

It calls for a nearly two-hour score, and what it badly needs to guarantee success is a composer with the experience, the flair, the originality and variety and rich inventiveness to sustain such a prolonged series of impish, magical or near-magical happenings.

Sally Beamish is one of the most acclaimed, inspired and respected of the middle generation of British composers working today. And the score she has produced meshes perfectly with the type of dance at which Bintley so excels – or vice-versa. This is a score utterly devoid of cliché but full of zest and vitality, while beautifully attuned to the love scenes so essential to the denouement of the plot, while conjuring up the magic and the mischief-making.

This exquisite originality of a scrumptious score that bravely eschews the obvious hits you from the very outset. We are geared up for a massive storm sequence as Alonso, the flawed King of Naples, and his acolytes battle for their lives, but instead at the outset we are treated to an almost deceptive calm, virtually an evocative overture, which evokes the (so far) safe passage of the doomed vessel. The use of especially flute here is all but benign: we get a slight hint of Ariel descending to wreak havoc, but actually this plain sailing offers something of an idyll in its own right.

There is even a splendid, carefree dance on deck, with shades of renaissance or medieval music evoked by increasingly swirling woodwind. And when the clouds do burst open, the syncopated violence has the feel of, say, Kurt Weill – plenty of vivid paired brass, but in no way overdone, even understated, thanks to conductor Philip Ellis whose restraint makes the fated voyage almost becalmed before it starts.

Often enough this score refuses to state the obvious: Caliban’s famous speech, for instance, is treated not in some mysterious, elusive way, but to some relatively straighProspero and Mirandatforward use of strings and woodwind; the mystery is there throughout the ballet, but the sense of the miraculous, the pure and the intimate is reserved especially for Miranda and Ferdinand; while the comic touches for Stephano (the versatile Valentin Olovyannikov) and Trinculo (the impossibly hilarious James Barton), once they are discovered, create a splendid contrast: the gauche as opposed to the sublime.

Prospero with Jenna Roberts as daughter Miranda. Picture Bill Cooper.

The orchestra Beamish deploys is used in an admirably restrained, enchanting way; thus woodwind, brass and to some extent strings (highlights include some bewitching violin solos from leader Robert Gibbs) each have their own moments, with flute and clarinet but also oboe given moments of beautiful definition; and the brass divided so that horn, trumpet and (I assume) trombone and tuba are given well-defined roles which enable them, time and again, to introduce by no means banal, but subtle characteristics to individuals, or to the group dances.

After the storm, the die-down to Miranda’s first appearance – solo violin and reflective woodwind – is magical; Momoko Hirata conjures up a wonderfully sensitive, innocent Miranda, and her pure dance moves and refined white costume win one’s sympathy throughout all her appearances in this exquisitely harnessed ballet.

Harp and strings are brought in for Prospero’s first dance – the long speech of Act I scene ii of Shakespeare, here trimmed to a manageable length solo. The relationship of father (Yasuo Atsuji captures the nobility and paternal tenderness to perfection) and daughter introduces the magical sound of the celesta, initially over bassoon and low strings, and then (for Miranda alone) heralded by solo flute and tympani.

There is a delicious sprightly dance for Ariel (the alert and spirited Tzu-Chao Chou: the Japanese dancers in this production all excelled at evoking the mystery and moral high ground of the original play), fresh from wreaking havoc by sea but now becalmed, and as the begrudging figure of Caliban emerges to threaten, low brass is used in a splendid prodding way that underlines his evil intent. Prospero comes to the rescue with yet more gloomy brass – his severity suggested - and the tympani, an instrument that plays a major role in the music, just occasionally perhaps overused, but mostly deftly tingeing the textures like another chamber instrument, and to masterly effect.

And so it goes on: paired cellos and woodwind flourishes suggest a more benign, resigned, less indignant Caliban - yet while Beamish’s music declines to present the strange creature as a galumphing ‘monster’, Lachlan Monachan makes of him an all too human failure, uncouth, gullible, vengeful.

The discovery of Prince Ferdinand, sensitively and elegantly danced at every stage by César Morales, who has escaped the naval conflagration but is now (by Prospero’s design) alone, yields exotic music for xylophone (or bell), beautifully mysterious, interrupted by a dance of Ariel’s spirits that works wondrously with clarinet and bass clarinet – an instrument of which Beamish makes occasional atmospBintleyheric use. The music increases in intensity, but it is pizzicato violins and soft tympani that set the young pair dancing. Beamish and Bintley here unroll one of the work’s loveliest moments, with enquiring bassoon opening up a gorgeous traditional pas-de-deux, as first love blossoms, and as tripping strings suggest his tentative pursuit of Miranda, a little waltz over solo cello is especially apt and entrancing.

David Bintley (right) hands-on in Tempest rehearsals with ballet master Dominic Antonucci, who takes on the role of baddy Antonio. Picture Andrew Ross.


In another vivid effect, there is a dancing trees interlude where solo piccolo and cello bewitch, each utterly enchanting, and like several of the inanimate or semi-animate groupings for ensemble, beautifully choreographed. We have had one brief, slightly Brittenesque march (before Ferdinand); now the flawed Alonso instigates a kind of pompous, Russian march, and this is all the more effective for the unexpected whining in the strings and cluckings from wood block; perhaps even a whisper of Stravinsky (the bass clarinet impinges ideally for this).

Caliban is subjected to some deep, sneering music, which yields to a cheerful use of brass and timpani as he is lighted upon by Trinculo and Stephano (who has his own witty brass solo). Solo violin over pizzicato cello is elaborated into a sequence curiously reminiscent of Erich Korngold’s Violin Concerto: yet each of these echoes - Prokofiev, Janáček, Tippett, Stravinsky - is purely coincidental. Beamish’s music, enterprising and exploratory, is entirely her own, and endlessly fresh and original.

The music becomes enraptured near the end of Act I: thus a full orchestral outburst – one of very few in the whole work – subsides and makes way for the enchantment of solo clarinet and strings, as the curtain falls on Ferdinand and Miranda once again united.

Where the composer uses oboe – especially sparingly as a solo instrument – it is always telling, as at the start of Act 2. Here we move to the mysterious banquet conjured up by Ariel and his acolytes for Alonso’s bewildered party. Various pairings of woodwind (flute soon joins oboe) create eerie effects for the meal, for which a large table descends to edgy, uneasy music that duly terrifies the captive participants. Doubly gripping is a string scherzo, suitably electrifying, which accompanies Ariel’s sinister dance, clad now in black.  

By contrast, xylophone (or bells) and paired flute and clarinet provide a perfect dance opportunity for the ‘good’ side. Antonio and Alonso’s previous overthrow of Prospero, rather like that of Hamlet’s father, is played out with violent brass and some effective solo strings, in an anticipation of the teasing Masques to come. Prospero himself, in one of the most affecting solo passages in the whole ballet, is nursed along by solo cello and the inevitable drum – just possibly drumming effects are overused, potentially but never quite becoming wearisome. Again thariel as a harpyis subsides, to enchanting violin solo and a small ensemble of lulling strings. 

A cheerful, attractively costumed peasant dance fills the stage – with lightly prodding brass to help it along. This heralds the arrival of Neptune (Mathias Dingman), a figure – like Aitor Galende’s Pan later on - not featured in the original play but used strikingly aptly here. Here Neptune is allocated piccolo and strings to vivid effect, and a new lilting dance opens the door to the variously scored, beautifully poised Masques of Ceres, Iris and Juno. Oboe leads the way for Ceres (Samara Downs), while celesta leads on to the dance of Iris (Brooke Ray), in which a magical suggestion of birdsong is evoked by the kind of renaissance feel of the strings.

Mathias Dingman's Ariel as a Harpy at the black and sinister party. Picture Bill Cooper.

The dance evolves into more of an early 17th century pirouette (one thinks of Peter Warlock’s adaptation of similar material) as Miranda and Prospero join the country folk and peasant girls. These full-blooded rural dances fade down – as Beamish is so skilled at doing – to the expressive solo violin, used throughout to such exquisite, touching effect, of Robert Gibbs. Stephano and his party, meanwhile, are subjected to violent pursuit by fierce dogs, splendidly depicted with snarling mouths, and the music suitably sneery and yapping. But then Valentin Olovyannikov’s Stephano takes the stage alone, in another memorable solo, unexpectedly serious rather than merely comic: easily one of the ballet’s best items.

Light-stepped trumpet and strings provide a platform for James Barton’s Trinculo, a brief solo which passes the baton to the now chastened Antonio (the suitably sombre, though regal, Chi Cao), Prospero’s formerly usurping brother, and Sebastian (Feargus Campbell), the malignant brother of Alonso. Beamish builds the forces to a large orchestral massing, before the dream lifts and some form of normality is at last reencountered, with Prospero duly restored and the return of the gorgeous sound of cello solo.

What makes the production round off so splendidly is that the curtain calls are carried off with wonderful aplomb; Bintley’s invention never droops: the vitality of these last appearances balances admirably the desperate battle with the initial storm: in a brilliant staging effect the ship is restored intact: the wheel has come full circle, and the forces of good are restored.

Roderic Dunnett




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