Last night Richard and I went to see *The Enchanted Island*, a world premiere at the Met. Peter Gelb, the General Manager, saw that Baroque opera was a hit with audiences, and the Met had a number of great Baroque singers on its roster, so how about building a showcase in the form of a pastiche opera? This is a form that was popular in the 18th century - - you take arias and ensembles from a number of different works and piece them together into a new work, with a new story. The conductor William Christie worked with composer and writer Jeremy Sams to choose music (by Handel, Vivaldi, Rameau, and a handful of other composers), and Sams wrote an all-new English text to hold it all together. The story takes Prospero and other characters from *The Tempest* and mixes them with the four young lovers from *A Midsummer Night’s Dream*.
It was delightful and expertly done. I have some quibbles, but generally had a very good time. Richard left at the intermission - - Baroque opera doesn’t really turn his crank.
THE WORK ITSELF
Christie and Sams did a brilliant job of choosing the music, and Sams’ new text was extraordinary. The whole piece had a consistent tone, which is no small feat, considering you’re using music from so many sources. The problem is that it didn’t have the flow and ease that you’d get in a through-composed Baroque opera. Christie and Sams carefully and thoughtfully pieced things together, giving variety both in terms of who is singing (not having too much time with one person, giving enough to everyone) and the character of the music (alternating slow, fast, and in between, also alternating arias with ensembles). But I think there’s an unconscious start-and-stop that happens with a pieced-together work like this, and it wears you down after a while. It seems that a Baroque opera by one composer has more propulsion, since it was written by one person from start to finish, with a clear sense of what was happening when.
It’s directed and designed by Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch, who did Glass’s *Satyagraha* at the Met, one of the most inventive opera productions I’ve ever seen. They did a lovely job with this, combining the layered two-dimensional scenery of 18th century opera with 21st century video projections. The shipwreck of the four lovers was awe-inspiring: the four of them were in a cute little boat, with layers of cut-out waves lapping around them, and in the storm a scrim came down, with flashes of lightning and sideways rain projected onto it. The cutest moment was in the first act scene with Neptune: he was on his throne, surrounded by mermaids and mermen. The chorus was on the sides, their faces peeking through wooden flats showing more mermaids and mermen, Coney Island-style. The staging throughout was straightforward and didn’t draw attention to itself.
I’ve never seen so few instruments in the pit at the Met, I bet there were no more than thirty people down there. Their playing was crisp and colorful and full of character. A huge round of bravos to William Christie, I bet he spent a lot of time with the orchestra, they’re more used to playing *Otello*. This ain’t *Otello*.
There are eleven roles in this show! Yeesh!
Joyce di Donato was the leader of the pack as Sycorax, head and shoulders above everyone else. She had the perfect balance of precision and passion, and acted with her voice a lot more than anyone I’ve heard in a long time, especially in the beginning of the show when she was in witch mode. She’s just been catapulted to the forefront of my opera-going agenda - - she might displace Karita Mattila as my Chosen Diva.
David Daniels has been the A-list counter tenor for a while. I’d never heard him in an opera before (I heard him in recital about fifteen years ago, and was a little underwhelmed), and he sounded a little diminished to me, both in volume and in vocal color. He doesn’t have the vocal velvet he used to have. Maybe he was having an off night? He did get better as the show went on, maybe he just took a while to warm up.
Danielle de Niese is Little Miss Firecracker for the new millennium, a darling little dynamo soprano who excels in fast-moving music and being pert. Previous Little Miss Firecrackers of the Met are Roberta Peters, Patrice Munsel, Judith Blegen, Kathleen Battle, and (more recently) Natalie Dessay. de Niese delivers the goods in vivaciousness, but her slow-tempo singing was uneasy and her fast-tempo singing was a little sloppy. But she made me smile a lot, which is her #1 job.
A few meaty supporting roles: soprano Lisette Oropesa was Miranda, and did the smoothest, loveliest singing of the evening. Bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni made the most of his role as Caliban, but was a little vague and woofy in the fast music, it was often hard to tell what pitches he was singing (and I see that was a requirement). Counter tenor Anthony Roth Costanzo got a huge ovation for his aria, which was just plain ravishing. He has the velvet that Daniels was lacking.
The four lovers were played by Layla Claire, Elizabeth DeShong, Paul Appleby, and Elliot Madore. They were marvelous. Each had one aria and lots of ensemble singing and they all shone. It was exciting seeing these under-30 kids playing a real part at the Met, and shining.
Last but not least, Plácido Domingo had a cameo role as Neptune. He’ll be 70 later this month, and still sounds great, he sounds like he’s in his 50s. But you could not understand a single word the guy sang! Everyone was glued to their Met Titles when he came onstage, his English sounded nothing like English. He gets the Zsa Zsa Gabor Award - - he’s worked consistently in the US for 40 years, learn to sing in English, fer Chrissake!