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Thursday, January 5, 2012

Opera Review: Down With the Ship (Slight Return)

The Met unveils The Enchanted Island
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Marooned: The cast of The Enchanted Island. L.-R.: Plácido Domingo (Neptune, with trident), 
David Daniels (Prospero), Luca Pisaroni (Caliban), Joyce Di Donato (Sycorax).
Photo by Ken Howard © 2012 The Metropolitan Opera.
In recent weeks, there have been a number of articles and commentary (on this blog and elsewhere) as to whether the Metropolitan Opera should have mounted The Enchanted Island. Upon seeing Peter Gelb and Jeremy Sams' baroque mash-up on January 4, the verdict is that this is an aural feast and spectacular entertainment. But the flaw in this "Baroque Fantasy," is the creative team's decision to ignore Shakespeare's earthy sense of humor.

Pastiche, the art of pasting together songs by different composers to make a new, playable work of art, has a long history, from the Shakesperean masques of Henry Purcell to Baz Luhrmann's film Moulin Rouge!. By combining The Tempest with A Midsummer Night's Dream, Mr. Sams and Mr. Gelb (working with baroque conductor William Christie) created a sampler platter of the genre. But as they cross-cut between eight composers while splicing the genres of opera and oratorio, they somehow fail to serve a satisfying operatic meal.

Mr. Gelb's casting department has peopled his Island with an all-star team of singers that could probably stomp the New York Yankees. The male cast ranges from Demetrius (Juilliard tenor Paul Appleby) to Luca Pisaroni's rock-solid Caliban. The latter adds much-needed weight to the proceedings, in his moving ode to the sounds and sweet airs of the island.

At the end of Act One, Mr. McDermott unveils the evening's stunt casting:  Plácido Domingo, decked out in crown, trident and full beard as the sea god Neptune. He enters to the British royal coronation anthem Zadok the Priest. Although he sang with ringing tone, the septuagenarian super-tenor struggled with his diction.

The finest performances came from the two countertenors. As Prospero, David Daniels' voice is still flexible and agile, racing up and down Mr. Sams' dizzying flights of Handel and Vivaldi. Anthony Roth Costanzo, a fine singer and a successor to Mr. Daniels as a genuine baroque star, is stunning in the small but technically demanding role of Ferdinand. His Act II entrance points toward plot resolution, but also has some of the evening's most florid singing. Also, Mr. Christie sounds more comfortable in the Met pit than in last year's Così fan tutte, although he does need to slow down and let his singers breathe.

From her entry, the talented mezzo Joyce DiDonato is a primal force as Sycorax. This witch is Caliban's mother, an offstage character in The Tempest,  promoted to a major player by Mr. Sams. Undergoing a transformation from aged hag to resplendent queen as the opera progressed, Ms. DiDonato responded with singing that got better as the night went on. However, her potent opera buffa mezzo sounded out of place in this baroque context.

The same could be said for Danielle de Niese as Ariel. (Mr. Sams revamped the sprite, who now sounds and acts more like Puck from the Dream.) Ms. de Niese sang with beauty and legato in slow passages, but swam upstream against  Mr. Christie's rapid-fire passages in Act I. That said, the Act II "sleep aria" (cribbed from Vivaldi) was radiantly sung.

The three Shakespearean ladies, Helena (Layla Claire) Hermia (Elizabeth DeShong) and Miranda (Lisette Oropesa) might well be attending the Queen of the Night. Director Phelim McDermott played up their interchangeability as the romantic misunderstandings mounted.

The real magicians here are the production team of Mr. McDermott and Julian Crouch, who made the Met's Satyagraha the most compelling production of the Gelb administration. For this work of theatrical artifice, Mr. McDermott chose a deliberately artificial look. The spectacle combines elaborate costumes (by Kevin Pollard) moving prosceniums and scrims (by Mr. Crouch) and imaginative digital projections (by 59 Productions) in a way that would have drawn the envy of the Blackfriars Theater.

So what's missing from The Enchanted Island? In creating this low-impact collision between two plays, Mr Sams' high-minded libretto excises a number of characters. Bully Bottom, the hapless Mechanicals, the drunken Stephano and Trinculo are all left out. The heroes are noble. The monsters are monstrous. Prospero looks great in a tailcoat. But there's no flawed humanity to set the table (or the opera house) on a roar. It looks great. It sounds great. But it's just not that funny.

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