I wasn’t sure what to expect for the Met’s new commissioned opera, The Enchanted Island. On the one hand, it was Baroque opera, which I don’t really have a lot of patience for. And some of the reviews were not all that enthusiastic about the length of the piece. On the other, it’s a pastiche opera that borrows arias from the leading Baroque composers of the time, and weaved together to tell the amalgamated tale of Shakespeare’s Tempest meets the Midsummer’s Night Dream. Which sounded fun! And it’s sung by a whole host of some of my favorite opera stars today – Joyce Didonato, David Daniels, Danielle de Niese, Placido Domingo…
So I went to the AMC Theater to catch the encore HD broadcast with some trepidation. If it turned out boring, I reckoned, I could always skip out early. But my fears were unfounded. I had such a lovely time! Jimmy Sam’s English libretto is playful and hilarious. Lots of little gems like ‘Lysander and Miranda – we rhyme!’ (sung with a gleeful little hop); ‘What happened to my spell? Duh, wrong ship!’, when Ariel realized how she had mistakenly shipwrecked the wrong ship.
I enjoyed the staging and the set – the use of computer graphics and animation was marvelous, especially in the shipwreck scene and the scene when we’re brought under the sea to Neptune’s court. The costume designs were very detailed and imaginative as well, and I couldn’t help but burst into laughter when Ariel appeared before Neptune in a vintage diver’s suit complete with the metallic diving helmet.
The cast was wonderful. Joyce Didonato, in particular, gave a rousing performance with her fearless colorations and heartfelt emotions. Her entrance aria, “Maybe Soon, Maybe Now” was so gorgeously sung, as was her duet at the end with Caliban, when she was trying to console him for his lost love. My other favorites: David Daniels (Prospero), Elizabeth DeShong (Hermia), Anthony Roth Costanzo (Ferdinand), Luca Pisaroni (Caliban).
Shiny Bibelot From Shakespeare, Handel & Co.
Forget “Auld Lang Syne.” The best music to ring in a new year is “Now a bright new day is dawning,” the joyous chorus that ends “The Enchanted Island,” the inventive concoction that had its premiere on Saturday night at the Metropolitan Opera. The music for this finale is lifted from the “Hallelujah” chorus that concludes Handel’s oratorio “Judas Maccabaeus.” The new words are by the librettist Jeremy Sams, who devised the story and assembled this fanciful, clever and touching pastiche by selecting arias, ensembles, choruses and dances from works by Handel, Vivaldi, Rameau and lesser-known Baroque composers.
But the idea came from Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager, who has had his hits and misses since arriving at the company in 2006. This was a good idea. His vision was carried out beautifully by Mr. Sams, aided by a terrific cast, the conductor William Christie and a brilliant production team headed by the director Phelim McDermott (that team that gave the Met its remarkable staging of “Satyagraha”).
As Mr. Gelb said in a recent interview, he wanted to “play the Baroque card” at the Met in a fresh way. Why not a pastiche? In the Baroque era the practice of borrowing music from one opera and fitting it with new words for another drama was commonplace.
This project could easily have resulted in a gimmicky piece with a mashed-up score. But Mr. Sams, who is a writer, director, translator and film composer, saw both the potential humor and the richness in the idea.
The story he devised, conflating elements of two Shakespeare plays with wit and charm, centers on Prospero, the brooding hero of “The Tempest,” an exiled duke of Milan who lives on a remote island with his devoted daughter, Miranda, and spends his days immersed in books containing formulas for potions and magic spells. Here the sorceress Sycorax, only mentioned in Shakespeare, is Prospero’s former lover and a central character. Prospero has banished Sycorax to the dark realm of the island, stolen her spirit servant, Ariel, and forced her savage son, Caliban, into servitude.
Hoping to ensure Miranda’s future and end his exile, Prospero conceives a plan to have Ariel create a storm that will wash ashore a passing ship bearing Prince Ferdinand, whom Prospero hopes to match with Miranda. But the spell is sabotaged by Sycorax, and another ship, bearing the four Athenian lovers from Shakespeare’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” is beset. A matrix of mismatched romantic pairings ensues on the island, due to Ariel’s hapless applications of love potions.
What gives “The Enchanted Island” its poignancy is the palpable respect for the beautiful borrowed music. In the first scene Prospero, here the charismatic countertenor David Daniels, promises Ariel, the brilliant soprano Danielle de Niese, freedom if she will summon a storm. The music for Prospero’s alluring aria is taken from a Vivaldi cantata, sung by Mr. Daniels with a transfixing blend of melting sound and forceful delivery. Ariel answers in an aptly effusive and wily aria, “I can conjure you a fire,” with vibrant music from Handel’s oratorio “Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno,” which Ms. de Niese deftly dispatched.
In most numbers Mr. Sams recycled not just the arias but the recitatives, retrofitted with new words. Where he had to compose new recitatives, he did it so well that you could not tell what was what.
The mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato was Sycorax, costumed at first (by Kevin Pollard) in a ragtag robe, her head all unkempt braids, giving her a slightly Rastafarian look. She commanded the stage from her first showcase scene, when she plotted her revenge on Prospero in “Maybe soon, maybe now” (music from Handel’s “Teseo”), singing with cool control, then bursting into fearless flights of passagework.
The bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni as Caliban looked menacing yet endearing in an exotic costume that suggested the Cowardly Lion with Kabuki whiteface. He relished the part and excelled in his volatile aria “Mother, my blood is freezing” (with music from Vivaldi’s “Farnace”). The lyric soprano Lisette Oropesa brought a gleaming voice and beguiling grace to Miranda. The countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo was a sweet-toned Ferdinand.
A strong quartet of young singers sang the Athenian lovers: the rich soprano Layla Claire, Helena; the bright-voiced tenor Paul Appleby, Demetrius; the plush mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong, Hermia; and the hearty baritone Elliot Madore, Lysander, in a strong Met debut. They first appear on ship at sea, jauntily singing “Days of pleasure, nights of love” (originally “Endless pleasure, endless love” from Handel’s “Semele”).
This episode also epitomized the creativity of Mr. McDermott’s production, with Julian Crouch as associate director and set designer. The set inventively combines traditional scenery flats with sophisticated videos. When we first see the ship, it rocks gently atop waves created by old-fashioned cutout boards that lift and dip. But when the storm breaks, frightening video images (created by 59 Productions) evoke swelling seas, hail and wind as the ship goes down.
What would a Baroque pastiche be without a star turn? This one had the tenor Plácido Domingo, no less, as Neptune: by his count, his 136th role (and first full-fledged god). Neptune, with flowing beard and silver raiment, is introduced in a dazzling underwater scene with an aquatic chorus of courtiers singing “Neptune the Great” (using “Zadok the Priest,” a Handel coronation anthem). Four mermaids float above. And Ariel, come to seek Neptune’s help, arrives in deep-sea diver’s gear.
In a gripping recitative and aria, patched together with music from Handel and Rameau, a despairing Neptune comments on the sorry state of the world and bemoans that his gift to mortals, the sublime ocean, has been despoiled by man. In this short but crucial role Mr. Domingo could let loose and really sing, which he did with heroic fervor. And as the run continues, this busy artist may not need to glance quite so much at the prompter’s box.
In the spirit of Baroque opera “The Enchanted Island” is long. Maybe too long, especially the first act, with its many contemplative arias. Still, the piece unfolds with remarkable integrity and consistency, despite the use of music from so many sources and styles.
Baroque purists who object should be quieted by the presence on the podium of Mr. Christie, who has done as much as any musician today to champion Baroque opera. I cannot imagine Handel, the Mr. Showbiz of his day, having any problem with “The Enchanted Island.” His only question would have been whether he would be paid an up-front fee or receive a percentage of the profits.