Posted in Opera

“Enchanted” Afternoon

Saturday afternoon’s live HD telecast of The Enchanted Island not only proved a delightful trip to Baroque opera-land—it demonstrated yet again that critics are incredibly biased against productions that are just plain fun.

Daniels & DiDonato…..Divine

As touted in the Met’s promotional materials, this work is a pastiche meant to emulate the sort of evening’s entertainment frequently cooked up by 17th and 18th century composers. The recipe goes something like this: take a stock plot involving at least two sets of lovers, swipe arias, ensembles and choruses from several different works and/or composers, throw in a mythological god or two and voila! Instant opera. In the case of The Enchanted Island, dramatist Jeremy Sams produced a mash-up of Shakespeare’s The Tempest and the four lovers from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, flavored by the music of Handel, Vivaldi and Rameau, among others. The result was incredibly witty and engaging, and just to thing to see on a snowy January day.

A lot of criticism has been directed at Met General Manager Peter Gelb for not scheduling an honest to God, full-length Baroque opera, i.e., the real deal instead of a pastiche. I’m just guessing here, but to me it seems obvious that management wanted to shoot the works by having Joyce DiDonato and David Daniels appear in the same opera. If so, there’s a slight hitch—she’s a mezzo, he’s a countertenor, so they both tend to sing the same roles in Baroque opera, i.e., heroic leads. The problems of casting and repertoire are thus solved when you build the house from the ground up. Another issue in the critical press has been the nature of the libretto—too contemporary, too vernacular, too silly. This is all very subjective, of course, but I loved it. I laughed out loud at several scenes, and if the naysayers couldn’t enjoy the sight of mismatched couple Lysander and Miranda jumping up and down with glee because their names rhymed (sort of), all I can say is some people need to lighten up.

I’ll get to the singers in a moment, but I think top honors should go to conductor William Christie, who also selected the works included in the opera. Beyond that, what he did with the orchestra was amazing. It doesn’t often play this type of music, but what we heard was nothing short of stylish, superlative musicianship. The number of players was of course significantly reduced—probably half the regular complement of strings, two flutes, two oboes, two bassoons, one set of tympani. The only time I can remember hearing brass was when Neptune made his entrance, and that was just a brief fanfare. Bravi tutti!

While I’m still not entirely sold on countertenors in the opera house, David Daniels did a masterful job as Prospero. He had two achingly beautiful arias, his entrance piece taken from a Vivaldi cantata, and better still, the aria that closed the first act, a Handel work featuring a stunning bassoon obligato. Lisette Oropesa played what I think of as the Dawn Upshaw role, Prospero’s daughter, Miranda, and her aria, from a Handel cantata, was lovely (by the way, the full playlist, so to speak, is available on the Met’s website). Dancing Danielle deNiese sang Ariel, and while she was cute as a little red wagon, her voice above the staff has gotten incredibly shrill. Bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni was Caliban, and his extraordinary makeup and costume couldn’t conceal what a tremendous singer he is. Placido Domingo showed up as Neptune and demonstrated that while he’s still got it vocally, Baroque is not exactly his metier. Four young singers from the Met’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program played the lovers from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and I’d keep my eye on soprano Layla Claire and baritone Elliot Madore—these two have definite possibilities.

There’s a special charge hearing a singer at the peak of her career, and that’s where Joyce DiDonato resides these days. As Sycorax, the sorceress mentioned but not seen in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, she goes for broke both musically and dramatically in her first arias as she casts her spells. In the second act she turns lyrical in a Ferrandini aria as she consoles her son Caliban, and hearing the DiDonato brand of musicianship in a work like this is a gift. She seemed to be having the time of her life playing ugly at the beginning of the opera, and aside from Beverly Sills, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a singer convey such enjoyment at what she does for a living. Not so incidentally, she earns that gorgeous costume you see in the production photo above by the end of the opera, and then some.

The production team poked some fun at the Baroque style with its over-the-top design of Neptune’s lair, complete with four floating mermaids and a chorus posed behind cardboard-flat cherubs. I also enjoyed Ariel’s entrance in that scene as she appears in old-fashioned diver’s gear, and the initial depiction of Neptune as a cranky Wizard of Oz. Even when Ariel-as-Tinkerbelle threatens to become too cute for words, you’re still wowed by the stage effects. I only have a couple of minor bones to pick—I wish Jeremy Sams had made the extent of Prospero’s usurpation more explicit at the beginning of the opera, because in the last scene even Joyce DiDonato can’t make Sycorax’s hatred of the man and her refusal of forgiveness logical. And casting a countertenor as Ferdinand almost made his pairing with Miranda incestuous—evidently she wanted a guy just like dear old Dad. However, their duet was terrific (countertenors are like universal donors—they blend like nobody’s business). It’s a shame we didn’t get some fireworks via a duet featuring DiDonato and Daniels, but it’s something to think about when the production is revived, isn’t it?

The encore HD telecast is scheduled for February 8th, and I’m sure this will turn up on PBS in the coming months. Don’t miss it.

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