31 December 2011

‘Enchanted’ for New Year’s

Ding! Dong! The Witch Is Hawt!
Joyce DiDonato as Sycorax

This afternoon I’m listening to an archival broadcast of Die Fledermaus from 1951, at the Metropolitan Opera. Among the many Golden Era opera singers in the cast, we’ll hear Jack Gilford in his legendary turn as Frosch the Jailer. It’s a New Year’s Eve party, and great, giddy fun of the sort that only opera houses can achieve.

This year’s New Year’s party at the Met is a new work, Jeremy Sams’ The Enchanted Island, a pastiche of two Shakespeare plays and several Baroque composers, starring some of the brightest of the singers of our own Golden Era. I saw the final dress rehearsal, after which I complained so bitterly about Sams’ lyrics that I may have slighted the reasons that, in fact, I had a great time at the show.

So, as a preview of what Met audiences will experience this evening — as an invitation of sorts to the New Year’s party — here’s a rundown of what I really liked about The Enchanted Island.

Jack Gilford and Patrice Munsel in Fledermaus.

The Look of the Show

Director Phelim McDermott, set designer Julian Crouch, costume designer Kevin Pollard, and graphic designers 59 Productions are seeking 21st-century solutions to the challenges of 18th-century stagecraft. To put it mildly, this is something that more producers of Baroque works ought to do — whereas in most productions, almost nobody even tries.

Baroque opera was meant to be as dazzling visually as it was vocally, packing in elaborate costumes, fancy sets that did stuff, gods and monsters, machines and explosions! (And, of course, big hats with feathers.) Everything was meant to be attention-grabbing and otherworldly, the sort of entertainment that an 18th-century audience would go out of its way to enjoy.

Trouble is, that stuff is expensive, and nowadays, Baroque opera isn’t a guaranteed success at the box-office. Thus we keep getting stripped-down productions with little to no set, modern-day costumes, and as little heroism and divinity as possible. We put up with it, because we’re lucky enough to live in an era when truly great singers of this music walk among us. But I’ve very seldom encountered a physical production that even attempted to rival the musical razzle-dazzle, and really only the Met’s old Rinaldo (shared with Houston Grand Opera and a Canadian company I’ll have to look up) came anywhere near the 18th-century aesthetic.

Topic: Kansans do Handel really well. Discuss among yourselves.
Ramey as Argante.

When Samuel Ramey, as Argante, made his entrance on a chariot pulled by a smoke-puffing dragon, he looked about ten feet tall even without the elaborate turban — and then he opened his mouth and sang like Samuel Ramey. I knew I was in good hands.

The Met’s Enchanted Island uses computer graphics and ingenuity, mixed with a bit of old-fashioned stagecraft (like throwing glittering confetti on people when they’re put under a spell) and imagery (the proscenium, Prospero’s cell, and Sycorax’s cave are meant to look like antique woodcuts), to create a show that feels true to its own nature. (Compare it with the new Faust.)

Do I wish some of the designs were prettier? Yes. Am I relieved that this isn’t just another Gelb-era flat box of bold solid colors and computerized gizmos? Also yes. It’s a step in the right direction.

A scene design from Enchanted Island

And because The Enchanted Island is based primarily on Shakespeare’s Tempest, the aesthetics matter. Shakespeare wrote his play hoping to capitalize on the new taste for courtly masques. The masque is the true spiritual progenitor of Baroque opera. Visually, McDermott’s production ties these aesthetics together quite smartly.

The Shakespeare of the Show

Sams has constructed a neat fusion of two plays into a whole that mostly makes sense. When he encounters dramaturgical potholes, it’s because he’s tried to add something: Prospero’s interest in forgiveness arrives much too early in Enchanted Island and makes it seem as if he’s been watching too much Dr. Phil; and likewise Neptune’s strange sort of midlife crisis (refusing to use his own divine power until Ariel believes in him) and his interest in environmentalism. (When he starts singing about pollution, you’ll be baffled: his undersea palace is sparkling clean.)

But I especially admired the way Sams introduces Miranda and Caliban into the Midsummer shenanigans. The characters interact appropriately and satisfyingly — Caliban even becomes a sort of surrogate Bottom. We’re instantly taken back to the Shakespeare productions of Handel’s day and age, when textual fidelity didn’t matter so long as the show was good. And this is in keeping, too, with the Met’s intentions behind the piece: to celebrate New Year’s. Nobody dies in Tempest or Midsummer, and everyone reconciles. Auld acquaintance ain’t forgot, but we move on to something that promises to be much nicer.

Ariel (Danielle de Niese) plays like Puck, mixing up the lovers.

It’s worth noting, too, that the strongest lyrics in the show are found in Caliban’s aria “If the air should hum with noises,” which paraphrases the Shakespearean Caliban’s haunting speech “Be not afear’d! The isle is full of noises.”

The Sound of the Music

There are many kinds of Baroque fans. Some are purists, and they’re the ones who will tell you it’s jarring and blasphemous to mix the works of Handel and Rameau, of Leclair and Vivaldi. But honestly, there’s no pleasing them, so why bother trying?

I am merely the sort of Baroque enthusiast who owns multiple recordings of Ariodante — and who loves theater. I’m old enough to remember so-called early-music specialists such as Christopher Hogwood, who treated the music as if with tweezers, dissecting rather than conducting, and the result was dry, bloodless performances.

William Christie, by contrast, may conduct period-instrument ensembles, but he’s pure electricity. He didn’t take up the cause of French Baroque music because it was a good career opportunity — nobody else was doing it — he did it because he feels passionately about this art form, and you hear that in his conducting.

Moreover, you hear it in the performances of the people who work with him. The first time I heard Joyce DiDonato in Handel, he was at the helm (Hercules at the Palais Garnier, in 2004), and she put on a simply staggering show, rich in psychological nuance and dazzling in vocal effects.

David Daniels as Prospero

With the countertenor David Daniels on board, you know The Enchanted Island is seaworthy. Daniels was the first countertenor I heard who really understood what it means to be the hero of a Baroque opera, and that dramatic fire fills his singing voice.

The Kids in the Show

Well, “kids” may be a relative term, but with the New York City Opera effectively assassinated and buried, the Met will bear a greater responsibility than ever for grooming young talent — American, when possible. I daresay it’s time to reexamine the ancient dream of a “Mini Met.”

The Enchanted Island gives several singers a terrific spotlight, starting with Anthony Roth Costanzo (as Ferdinand), the countertenor whose skyrocket is only just starting to take off. A Princeton-educated polymath, he’s scarily smart, boy-band cute, and a thrilling vocalist.


I do wish Costanzo had more to do in this particular production, but he and the other “young lovers” in the company are mightily impressive: Lisette Oropesa (Miranda), Layla Claire (Helena), Elizabeth DeShong (Hermia), Paul Appleby (Demetrius), and Elliot Madore (Lysander) combined radiant voices and first-rate comedic chops. Also, an appealing quartet, commenting a couple of times on the action, featured Ashley Emerson, Monica Yunus, Philippe Castagner, and Tyler Simpson.

The strength of all of their performances speaks well of training grounds such as the Met’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program, and it will speak even better of the Met if the company keeps finding good parts for these singers. Yes, let’s start looking for that Mini Met, please.

The Divo

There’s an undeniable, irresistibly satisfying charge that goes up and down your spine when Plácido Domingo makes his entrance as Neptune. To see him in his undersea palace, surrounded by a chorus of mer-people, some of whom are “swimming” in midair behind him, is its own kind of fantasy. And then he starts singing.

At an age when other tenors have long since hung up their shields and helmets (or make you wish they had), Domingo still wields a flexible, clean sound with its trademark burnished-gold tone. Is Baroque really what we expect to hear from him? Of course not — but he sounds terrific, and he’s such a smart musician that he finds a style that strikes you as absolutely right. How else would a god sound?

Costume designs for Neptune (with Domingo’s face pasted in) and the mermaids.

The Fun of It All

As an actress, Joyce seems liberated (one of her favorite words) by the role of Sycorax. I was reminded of the Let’s Pretend games of childhood, when you’d grab the kitchen broom and run around the back yard, “flying” and playing the witch. Stooped and dressed in haggy rags, she’s having a high old time, especially in the comedic romance scenes, in which Sycorax is constantly meddling, perfectly in harmony with the silly business around her.

Ad yet Joyce is capable, a few scenes later, of eliciting real sympathy in a poignant lament she sings, by way of apology, to Caliban, the son she’s manipulated (for his own good, at least as she sees it). She sounds amazing, of course, sustaining long lines and spinning off filigree, but to me what’s really striking is her ability to weave the many strands of her character into one seamless, credible, (vocally) shimmering fabric.

By the evening’s end, Sycorax has gone glamorous, much like the Witch in Sondheim’s Into the Woods. Joyce wears a golden gown with cleavage to make you gasp — and remember that, yes, Italian men do love her. Plus, it’s she who gets the pièce de résistance, the big feathered hat I’d been waiting for. Also a big feathered cape.

Then Domingo took her hand, and I said, “Yes! That’s opera, baby!”

So, go! It’s a good time, and what’s more, the Met is trying something different, and it’s worthy of our support and encouragement, into the New Year and beyond.

The Enchanted Island
Metropolitan Opera
31 December 2011 – 30 January 2012
For more information, click here.
HD Simulcast 21 January

Not just HD, but 3D? (Namely, DiDonato, Domingo, and Daniels.)

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