Gregory G. H. Rihn (milwaukeesfs) wrote,
Gregory G. H. Rihn

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.

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Tags: opera

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