February 2nd, 2012

The Met in HD: The Enchanted Island

How often these days are we going to get to see a “new” Baroque opera?

We did, on January 21st.“The Enchanted Island” is a pastiche (what nowdays is called a “mash-up,”) a new libretto, itself a combination of stories from Shakespeare, set to music borrowed from a wide selection of Baroque composers. Handel, Vivaldi, and Rameau are the chief donors, but lesser known composers such as André Campra, Jean-Marie Leclair, and Giovanni Battista Ferrandini, with one theme borrowed from Henry Purcell’s semi-opera “The Tempest”. (There is a 1674 semi-opera, “The Tempest, or The Enchanted Island,” libretto by by Thomas Shadwell after John Dryden and William Davenant's adaptation of Shakespeare's The Tempest; music by Matthew Locke, Giovanni Battista Draghi and Pelham Humfrey, but no music from that made it into this production.)

The plot is mostly that of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” with some significant alterations. Prospero (counter-tenor David Daniels), having long since made himself master of the island of his exile, commands the spirit Ariel (Danielle de Niese) to raise a storm at sea and bring ashore the ship bearing Prince Ferdinand, whom he intends to marry his daughter Miranda (Lisette Oropesa). One of the departures from Shakespeare is that Sycorax (Joyce DiDonato) is still alive, and herself living in exile on the “dark side” of the island. Her plot to win her powers back causes Ariel’s spell to misfire and instead strike the ship carrying Demetrius, Helena, Lysander, and Hermia, on a honeymoon voyage after the events of “Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Ariel takes on the functions of Puck, casting love charms for Miranda on first Demetrius and then Lysander in the mistaken belief they are Ferdinand. Meanwhile, Sycorax casts a similar charm on Hermia to gain her as a wife for Caliban (Luca Pisaroni).

Sorting this out takes up much of the action of the opera, and requires the eventual intervention of Neptune the sea god, played majestically by Placido Domingo.

This production was great fun to watch as well as to listen to. Librettist Jeremy Sams and conductor William Christie did a great job of choosing beautiful and effective pieces from the extensive Baroque repetoire, and stage director and production designer Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch created a wonderful fantasy world combining the best of Baroque-era theatre conventions with modern special effects. For example, the scenes at sea include the classical wooden “waves” going back and forth, but are augmented with video rear-projections of mountainous seas when the storm hits. Mermaids float on invisible wires, the forests glow with fairy lights, and magical creatures appear and disappear. Costume design was lovely as well: although mostly period-appropriate for Baroque opera, there are “Steampunk” touches in Prospero’s working goggles, and the geared harness that Ariel wears binding her wings. In Sycorax’s first, most “witchy” appearance, her gray dreadlocks flow down into her garment, making them almost roots. Caliban’s body is mostly gray-green flesh of a Frankensteinian shade, but with apish build and hair. I didn’t understand the decision to give him “Joker”-like face makeup, although it did bring out the human-ness of Pisaroni’s expressive eyes in the monstrous body.

The singing was uniformly delightful. It was a treat to get to hear so many Baroque artists, who seldom get a chance to sing in such large venues as the Met. David Daniels was very fine in a demanding role as Prospero, but the real stand-out was Joyce DiDonato, whose thrilling and rich contralto voice gave great power and beauty to the role of Sycorax, and she was justly given the diva’s position of last bow at the curtain call. The Met audience gave the cast a well-earned standing ovation.

This entry was originally posted at http://sinister-sigils.dreamwidth.org/201496.html. Please comment there using OpenID.

“The Iron Lady”

On Sunday, January 22nd, we went out to see “The Iron Lady,” the biopic about Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s first female Prime Minister, and the longest serving PM of the 20th century. Her story is told in flashbacks, done well enough, but I did not care for the framing portion, which I thought dwelt too much on portraying the present-day Thatcher (Meryl Streep) as a pitiful and delusional old woman who carries on conversations with her hallucinatory dead husband, Dennis (Jim Broadbent).

I would much rather have seen more about her early career to tell us who she was and where she came from. We get glimpses of her early life as a shopkeeper’s daughter, but then skip over her days at Oxford (and the fact that she later studied law and was called to the Bar as a barrister is never mentioned), and go straight to her initially unsuccessful but impressive campaigns for a seat in Parliament for the Conservative Party. It would perhaps have been interesting to see something of her early Parliamentary career, whatever it was that caused the party to promote her from the back benches to Undersecretary and Shadow Cabinet positions, but when next we see her, she is already a Cabinet Minister for Education, and being groomed to challenge Edward Heath for the leadership of the Conservative Party. (In typical biopic fashion, events are condensed. It appears that she became party leader and Prime Minister simultaneously: in fact, she gained leadership in 1975, but not Prime Minister until 1979.)

The movie is quite unflinching about the hard times Thatcher managed Britain through, for better or worse, but does not go into much detail about the politics. Instead, we see newsreel montages of what was euphemistically reported over here as “labor unrest”, but was actually serious rioting and near-insurrection. Those Americans who swinishly squeal that the “Occupy Movement” amounts to “class warfare” should see this film to glimpse what the real thing looks like: fires, explosions, and all-in brawls between police and rioters filling entire streets. I can’t get out of my head the brutal clip of a man who was ridden down by a mounted policeman, and then galloped over by a dozen more charging behind. (Over here, when one ex-Marine is hospitalized by a rubber bullet, it is a national story and a scandal. The man who was trampled was undoubtedly killed, but I wonder if anyone, other than his immediate family, even knows his name--.)
The movie does record that things gradually got better under Thatcher’s leadership, without going into detail as to how or why. It does touch fairly extensively on the Falklands war and Thatcher’s place as a leader at the “end” of the Cold War. It also implies that she was eventually ousted as leader of her party and Prime Minister due to her increasingly controlling and harsh temperament.

Streep does a very good job of acting Mrs. Thatcher at various stages of her political career, although again, much of her time is wasted playing the maundering aged Thatcher. (The teenaged to twenty-something Margaret is played by Alexandra Roach.) Jim Broadbent has some evident fun playing the “ghost” of Dennis, who is sometimes grumpy, but mostly cheerful when she is remembering better times. They are very well supported by an extensive cast of Brit-film “usual suspects” playing the many other political figures she worked with during her long career.

Costumes and makeup were frankly fantastic, being very period appropriate. Streep’s makeups for the various ages she portrays are extremely well done to the point that it is difficult to pick out the “real” Streep’s face.

Verdict: Interesting, unsympathetic, unsatisfying.

This entry was originally posted at http://sinister-sigils.dreamwidth.org/201825.html. Please comment there using OpenID.