New York, NY – On December 31, the Metropolitan Opera celebrated the end of 2011 with a star-drenched revue of eighteenth century rock music culled from the vocal works of masters of Baroque swagger such as Handel, Vivaldi, and Rameau. The Enchanted Island was written by Jeremy Sams, who the English libretto, a conflation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and chose the music in collaboration with the conductor, William Christie, and the cast of internationally lauded singers. The pastiche genre flourished in the eighteenth century, about a century and a half before the classical music world decided to regard everything that a composer wrote was a definitive, inflexible text. Singers were the stars of the theater, and arias, duets, and ensembles that showed off the talents of the most popular singers and composers would be tenuously sewed together by a simple plot. Think Ziegfield Follies or, more recently, Rock of Ages. The goal is not a life-altering story but an evening of pure fireworks and good-natured, digestible ego stroking.
On its own, the libretto of The Enchanted Island is no great work of literature, but neither were the libretti of the Baroque era’s most ubiquitous and overused opera poet, Metasasio. The dialogue between the characters, especially the interpolated lovers from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is subtly sardonic and full of cleverly devised humor which compensates for the simple text of the arias and ensembles. It’s important to remember that Baroque operas did not delve into the individual psychology of their characters; it is the broad, generalized emotions and situations of the arias that lends Baroque music so well to the hodge-podge of a pastiche. The text gives the general idea and the music fills in the rest. A perfect example of this is Sycorax’s opening vengeance aria “Maybe soon, maybe now!” ferociously sung by Joyce DiDonato. Based on “Morirò ma vendicata” from Handel’s Teseo, the lackluster text is completed by the vengeful ornamentation and choppy, disjunct vocal line. The beauty of opera is that not everything has to be explicit in the text, which makes it that much more accessible.
Most disappointing was the dramatic pacing, consistently halted by poorly placed musical numbers. The climax of Act I was the the dramatic and energetic entrance of Plácido Domingo as Neptune. Unfortunately, this exciting moment was ruined by Prospero’s aria “Chaos, confusion” (Handel’s “Pena, tiranna” from Amadigi di Gaula), in which he just…summarized for about five minutes. Act II was painfully slow. Baroque purists will insist on the performance of the full da capo aria, but for modern audiences, I do not believe the repeat of the A section is necessary. Joyce DiDonato’s expertly crafted “Hearts that love will all be broken” (Ferrandini’s “Sventurati i passi miei” from Il Pianto di Maria) was long enough…and then she repeated the A section thereby thoroughly diffusing any sort of dramatic thrust! We were subjected to yet another painfully slow and repetitive aria near the end of the performance, when Prospero begged Sycorax to forgive him for what felt like twenty minutes. You could feel the audience collectively begging Sycorax to at least pretend to forgive him so that we could move on already!
Baroque opera, like baroque art, relied on spectacle and gratuitous richezza. Onstage projections often eliminate the thoroughly theatrical“How did they do THAT” factor. The animation and projections designed by 59 Productions were marvelous, mind-blowing optical illusions that added to the whimsical fantasy of the whole production. The shipwreck in the middle of Act I was unbelievably stunning, as the lovers’ ship sank seamlessly into…a video projection and a screen? It was absolutely boggling and perfectly integrated into the physical scenery designed by Brian MacDevitt. It is precisely this marriage of traditional theater magic with 21st century technology that the MET needs more of.
In the role of Sycorax, Joyce DiDonato displayed that she is the most exhilarating, completely uninhibited, and flawlessly musical opera singer today. She was given some of the opera’s most difficult music, navigating virtuosic coloratura, gossamer legato, caustic chest tones and fearless high notes. Playing her son, the monster Caliban, was Italian-Venezuelan bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni, who sang with impeccable English diction, and a smooth caramel tone. Runner-up to these two was Danielle de Neise in the pants role of Ariel. De Neise makes up for what she lacks in technique with quirky energy and loads of charisma that is perfect for the mischievous Ariel.
It is always thrilling to see Plácido Domingo live; even in the fifth decade of his career, his voice has more power than 95% of tenors singing today. His reputation, however, could not ensure that he would accurately memorize his music, and a very loud prompter coupled with measure upon measure of indecipherable, consonant-free text in Act II was disappointing.
Still, Domingo’s full-blooded singing was more exciting than the miscast David Daniels as the aging duke-sorcerer Prospero. His music was the most boring and slow-moving music of the night. Luckily, the glacial speed of his tunes were countered by the delightful romps of the Midsummer Night’s Dream quartet of lovers: soprano Layla Claire as Helena, mezzo Elizabeth DeShong as Hermia, tenor Paul Appleby as Demetrius, and baritone Elliot Madore as Lysander.
The Enchanted Island is an enjoyable mix-tape of some of the Baroque era’s best music. The majority of the performances are world-class, the story is simple, inventive, and easy to follow; it is certainly full of visual splendor and aural delights. All it needs is a little rearranging.
Photos by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
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