29 December 2011

L’Isola Incantata

Castaways: David Daniels (Professor), Luca Pisaroni (Skipper), Anthony Roth Costanzo (Gilligan), Lisette Oropesa (Mary Ann), Layla Claire (Ginger), Plácido Domingo (Mr. Howell), and Joyce DiDonato (Mrs. Howell).

There’s so much to recommend The Enchanted Island, a new pastiche opera that will have its premiere at the Met on New Year’s Eve. It marks a reunion between Joyce DiDonato, who makes so much of my life not only bearable but special, and William Christie, the conductor who, by dint of his pioneering revival of French Baroque music, is one of my primary cultural heroes. Joyce and Christie collaborated on Handel’s Hercules, which I saw at the Palais Garnier, several years ago, on one of the great nights of my career as an audience.

Add to these two wonderful artists such estimable colleagues as David Daniels, Luca Pisaroni, Lisette Oropesa, and Anthony Roth Costanzo, plus some singers I hadn’t heard before, including the especially impressive Layla Claire and Elliot Madore. Then toss in Plácido Domingo, treated like the divine force he truly is, and it was a sure thing I’d float out of the Met on a fluffy Baroque cloud of Handel and Vivaldi and Rameau and all the other composers whose music is so thrillingly performed in this opera. I attended the final dress rehearsal, and by all means, you should rush to buy tickets.

The tiny ship was tossed…

That’s not to say I don’t have reservations. Jeremy Sams has constructed an ingenious framework for all this fabulousness, fusing elements of Shakespeare’s Tempest and Midsummer Night’s Dream, sometimes with winning comedy. Unfortunately, Enchanted Island also features English lyrics by somebody else called Jeremy Sams (can’t possibly be the same guy); these sound as if he wrote them like Mad Libs and using a rhyming dictionary. Again and again, a character steps forward to sing, “I feel [blank].” Now, the original arias don’t contain great poetry, perhaps, but at least their authors were acquainted with metaphor and other literary values: for instance, when Julius Caesar rescues Cleopatra, she doesn’t sing, “I feel happy,” she sings about a ship, battered by storms but arriving safely in the harbor.

Many, perhaps most, of Sams’ lyrics are jaw-droppingly, head-slappingly, Pinth-Garnell bad. The low point is Miranda’s entrance aria, in which she tells Prospero, “I have no words for this feeling I am feeling,” which is not only a flat statement that would embarrass a third-rate pop tunesmith, it’s also an admission that Sams ran out of ideas.

You may be tempted to do what I did, which is to set your MetTitles® to German (Italian and French aren’t available) to distract yourself; or you may choose do what Stendhal would have done, which is to forget the words altogether and make up your own story.

Ultimately, it’s not too early for the Met to start planning for the revival, and I urge one and all to do the right thing: sing in Italian. At least the rhyming will be easier. But while they’re at it, the Met could simplify Sams’ plot — five acts’ worth of business crammed into two very, very, very long acts — and make The Enchanted Island even easier for contemporary audiences to follow, with most of the same cast and just a few minor adjustments. My version is entitled L’Isola Incantata, ossia Gilligan.

Sit right back, and you’ll hear a tale….


There’s a crisis on the island! Mr. and Mrs. Thurston Howell III are fighting! Mr. Howell (Plácido Domingo) continues to live in splendor, while Mrs. Howell (Joyce DiDonato) dresses in rags and schemes to murder her husband, possibly using the poison that a Headhunter (Danielle DeNiese) has left behind.

With his vast understanding of Psychology 101, the Professor (David Daniels) acts as go-between, counseling the couple but secretly hoping to marry Mrs. Howell himself, since they’ve been on this island a long time and he can see that Ginger (Layla Claire) and Mary Ann (Lisette Oropesa) will never sleep with him.

Meanwhile, the Skipper (Luca Pisaroni) and Gilligan (Anthony Roth Costanzo) are making one last-ditch attempt to repair the Minnow and get off the island. Just then, Jungle Boy (Elliot Madore), a TV actor, arrives on the island to do research for his new adventure series. Can he rescue the Castaways?

There’s high jinks and suspense galore, and also some terrific singing. In the Act III finale, the Howells are reconciled, and Joyce gets to wear a pretty dress and a hat with big feathers, which is not only what Mrs. Howell would wear, it’s also the costuming hallmark of any decent Baroque pastiche opera.

Mr. Gelb, you know where to find me!

Here, the cast listens to a Saturday afternoon radio broadcast.


Fred Plotkin said...

I am certain the costumes in "L'Isola" are better than "GIlligan's Island." I had trouble with that show as a kid because the characters always seemed to be wearing the same clothes, with just a few changes. True, they were shipwrecked, but still.... Am very much looking forward to the pasticcio nuovo.

William V. Madison said...

Oh, Fred, what those folks crammed on that tiny boat for their "three-hour tour" could never be catalogued. No wonder the Minnow sank.

For those who haven't seen Fred's blog, he heralded the arrival of Enchanted Island with a recipe for pasticcio, an Italian delicacy. The link is listed on the right-hand side of this screen; check it out.

In other news, I recently spoke with a friend who knows far more about Baroque music than I do. She took issue with Jeremy Sams' lyrics not only for their pedestrian language (no Baroque librettist would deign to write an aria that didn't center on a poetic conceit, rather than the flat statements that Sams prefers) but also for their function. Sams uses arias to advance the plot, she says (frankly, I was wincing so much, I didn't really notice), but in Baroque, the plot is the preserve of the recitative. Arias freeze the action so that the characters can characterize the emotional moment.