Enchanted Island: No man or woman is a…

 Contrary to anything you may have read, the Met’s The Enchanted Island pasticcio does not feature a cameo by a wisecracking René Pape as the Skipper.* But it’s got just about everything else. Everything, that is, except a reason for us to care. An all-star cast belts out top Baroque tunes in a beautifully designed production, but thanks to Jeremy Sams’s insipid, self-indulgent libretto, most of it ends up being much ado about nothing. Why can’t we have actual Baroque opera instead?

Various, The Enchanted Island. World premiere pasticcio, Met Opera, 12/31/2011. Assembled by Jeremy Sams, conducted by William Christie, directed by Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch, sets by Crouch, costumes by Kevin Pollard, lights by Brian MacDevitt. With David Daniels (Prospero), Joyce DiDonato (Sycorax), Danielle De Niese (Ariel), Lisette Oropesa (Miranda), Luca Pisaroni (Caliban), Placido Domingo (Neptune), Layla Claire (Helena), Elizabeth DeShong (Hermia), Paul Appleby (Demetrius), Elliot Madore (Lysander), Anthony Roth Costanzo (Ferdinand).

The Enchanted Island has hitched itself to the eighteenth century pasticcio tradition, a conglomeration of old music set to a new story. But it’s a 21st-century creation through and through, as I think its creators would readily acknowledge.** Jeremy Sams is responsible for the libretto. In a rewrite of The Tempest, Prospero is situated on the titular island (which makes whooshing noises identical to the one on Lost) and must confront the challenges of age, Ariel, and his lady-rival Sycorax (who is already dead in the Shakespeare). But rather than the intended Ferdinand, the honeymooning four lovers from A Midsummer Night’s Dream wash up instead. While Prospero’s responsibilities to the island and Ariel seem to be the central plot problem, most of the work’s time is spent with these four, who along with Miranda and Caliban go about doing what Shakespearean lovers do best: fall in love with the wrong people.

The music selection (here is a list) has some nice pieces and the sung texts are relatively smooth, but the shifts between the eight different composers selected can be rocky. Handel dominates, but the bits of French stuff harmonize poorly, and some of the Vivaldi sticks out as well. Many da capo arias’ B and A’ sections have been lost at sea, and some (presumably newly-composed) recit is pretty stylistically wonky (and I’m not sure where all the chamber-scored bits and accompagnato came from). More severe is the feeling that much of the music was chosen largely at random and shoehorned into the plot just as forcibly as the Midsummer lovers were. Some transpositions of duets and arias up and down octaves are quite peculiar (most strangely Vivaldi’s coloraturific “Dopo un’orrida procella” given to a baritone Lysander and “Arise ye subterranean winds” given to a soprano Ariel), and the expression doesn’t always line up either. Baroque music often was retexted back in the day, but that doesn’t mean that any sentiment goes.

Old story, old music–it’s less a story than a simulacrum of a story, the pale imitation of something we’ve all seen done before, and better. It unfolds bumpily and shapelessly, aided by the magical character’s spells in the service of a librettist who seems to think himself exceptionally clever. Yet there’s little genuine wit on display, and even less adult emotion, and sincerity, nor a clear emotional trajectory. These are all things you can find Baroque opera, but in the pastiche-ing they’ve been misplaced.

This was all the more dispiriting because the production is simply gorgeous, with lush costumes and projection scenery on a screen behind an elaborate second proscenium. (There are many more photos at the bottom of this post.) The visual style is original and whimsical and poetic and unfortunately rarely tries to upstage the action. Only a few Disney-ish moments of sparkle seem cheesy. The other effects are lovely, though I wish the rest of the audience hadn’t started applauding over the music when the ship sank.

But the island is disenchanted. We’re told that the superficiality proudly espoused by this work constitutes “fun.” We don’t have to wonder why Prospero is obsessed with making everyone move piles of wood because they’ve left that weird bit out! But, three-quarters of the way through Act 1 I found myself, probably aided by a certain degree of sleep deprivation, in the throes of an existential crisis that had been building up all season. If Enchanted Island was a failure, an attempt at a fun romp that ended up sort of tangled, then too bad, maybe the next one will work. But what if it was, on its terms, a success? What if this is our fun now? What if now all we desire of opera is this exquisitely crafted nothing, smug and regressed to childhood and utterly irrelevant to anything that makes us human? Why are we creating “art” that in many ways isn’t art at all? Maybe I should pack it in and start going to the movies more. Then I wouldn’t be asking all these damn rhetorical questions.

Two things happened that while not up to salvaging the evening at least made me stop contemplating das Ende. The first was the biggest coup de theatre of the production, the entrance of Placido Domingo as Neptune. He arrives on a seashell flanked by ranks of mermaids to the strains of “Zadok the priest,” robed and wearing a gigantic beard. It’s an image of sufficient outrageousness and novelty as to overpower the fact that his subsequent scene does not advance the plot and our tenor appeared to have not looked at his music ahead of time, kept getting behind Christie, and didn’t know the words (compounded by the juxtaposition of Handel, Rameau, and Vivaldi in close quarters, one of the evening’s least felicitous moments of pastichery). The staging had finally upstaged the far inferior text with sheer audacity.

The second moment was in the second act and can be described as Caliban’s coming of age, when Helena leaves him for her recovered Demetrius. With his mother Sycorax’s revival, Caliban’s status in the plot is kind of unclear. Also he’s a monster in KISS tribute makeup. But the sting of his rejection is the most comprehensible emotion we’ve seen yet and Luca Pisaroni played him with such sweetness and honesty that I found myself, for the first time, in a real story. Joyce DiDonato’s Sycorax, to this point a scenery-chewing caricature, turns human and three-dimensional. The following masque-style dream sequence, set to French music, has a plot that seems to be misplaced from the Great Courtesans of History ballet excised from November’s Faust and features some strangely aerobic choreography from Graciela Daniele, but the change of pace is welcome–more dance would have been great. Unfortunately Caliban is more or less dropped as a character after this.

Such is one’s fate in a work whose cast is the operatic equivalent of Love, Actually so prepare for a list discussing the singers. We’ve already covered Placido, and Pisaroni, who sings as well and expressively as he acts, and DiDonato, whose coloratura is great and stage presence significant but whose singing has this kind of constant tension that keeps her sound edgy and tightly wound, including in some places where that isn’t ideal. Danielle De Niese managed to make the very annoying Ariel not that irritating, though he (Ariel) bears the brunt of the plot mechanics. She (De Niese) engaged in some approximatura at inadvisably fast tempos in Act 1 but carried off the popular Vivaldi showpiece “Agitata da due venti” surprisingly well–though, it must be said, the aria is cut down to only its first section.

The most beautiful tones of the evening were from the lyric sopranos Lisette Oropesa as Miranda and Layla Claire as Helena, both of whom I hope I will be hearing lots more of in roles where they can develop characters. Mezzo Elizabeth DeShong was great in “Where shall I fly” from Hercules, I mean here she was Hermia. David Daniels was in the nominally central role of Prospero but did not make a strong impression and sounded thin and effortful, though his singing is musical. Stronger was the powerful countertenor of Anthony Roth Costanzo in the Fortinbras-like role of Ferdinand, who made the most of his one aria and duet. As Demetrius and Lysander, Paul Appleby and Elliot Madore were fine but made less of an impression than the women.

William Christie must, for better or worse, must bear much responsibility for this affair as well. As for his conducting, it was good. It was, as one would expect, very fast. This had a much less percussive and crisp effect with the Met’s modern orchestra than it would have with a historical practice one, and sometimes the singers were challenged. Still, he knows the style and got the orchestra sounding more Baroque than I would have expected. The instrumentation was small but not so small as to sound dinky.

But the entire thing left a bitter taste, a dumbed- and watered-down evening that is for the most part not actually that fun. I suspect this was a one-off experiment, and it’s not one I would be eager to repeat. Can we give a real Baroque opera a shot next time, please?

*It also lacks a cameo by Jean-Paul Fouchécourt crying “Ze plane! Ze plane!”
**See also Text and Smacked, I mean, Text and Act.

More photos:



Photo copyright Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

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  1. "Maybe I should pack it in and start going to the movies more. Then I wouldn't be asking all these damn rhetorical questions."

    Oh yes you would. Or at any rate, should. (Any self-respecting film critic–and they aren't all–asks herself those questions, faced with the more inept Hollywood blockbusters, from time to time.)

  2. Loved the 5th paragraph below the cast-list. Despite centuries and desperate tries to marry opera with creativity and make it an art-form on its own, it is still too often reduced to a vain form of entertainment…

    *MAYBE* Gelb wanted to make it entertaining so that a typical Met operagoer would embrace baroque more easily. Connoisseurs were already served Rodelinda this season, no?!

    OTOH, with the current standards of stage direction at the Met ('decorators' is probably more appropriate) you can only imagine the snooze-fest with Ariodante, Orlando, Semele…? Plus the auditorium is too large for baroque.

    BTW, was De Niese audible all the time?


  3. Bonjour, M. Cake, I think that's what Gelb was trying to do but the result is not very entertaining, it is comedy without the part where it's funny. Light and frothy things are fun because they tell us something about the human condition, and this just felt like regurgitated plot mechanics emptied of all content.

    Most Baroque connoisseurs including myself stayed far away from Rodelinda this fall due to Renée Fleming's Handel stylings.

    De Niese was perfectly audible except in the sort of E-F-G lower region of the staff, where there's not a lot of voice. Shrill tone, though.

  4. I have to admit I cringed as soon as I read "pastiche" in the descriptions of this one. I like some of the singers, but owwww. It's like the Met has created the Frankenstein of operas or something. Seems like a really bad idea to me.

    In any case, thank you for your review! It is, as always, wonderful; I feel as if I too attended, rather than being stuck in grad school in the middle of a cornfield. Muchas gracias. 🙂

  5. Thanks for this review, which confirms what many of us who are passionate about Baroque opera feared, and gives us a further reason to stay away from this production.

    Even granted there was a Baroque tradition of creating pasticcio "operas," it seems to me unconscionable that the Met would concoct one before it has mounted such essential masterpieces as Alcina and Ariodante, to name two Handel works The Enchanted Island draws on. In fact, Ariodante has just been recorded very successfully by Joyce DiDonato, raising the question, why not create a production of it for her, just as they did of Rodelinda for Renee Fleming? Maybe Fleming was not ideal in the title role, but that beautiful, moving, serious production proved that Baroque opera can succeed in the cavernous Met if mounted with care and conviction (rather than shoveled onto the stage the way their lamentable productions of Rinaldo and Giulio Cesare were).

    Given the caliber of the musicians involved, I'd expect the singing and playing in The Enchanted Island to be very good. But it's inexplicable to me that fundamentally serious artists like Christie, DiDonato, Daniels, and Domingo would willingly participate in what's being marketed as little more than a Christmas pantomime for people who can't be bothered with a full-length opera by a genius like Handel (or, God forbid, Rameau), with its attendant demands on their intellects, emotions and, dare one say it, souls?

    And when I read an interview in the Times with Peter Gelb in which he baldly states that this pastiche–which he claims as his idea alone–is intended to be much "more of an evening's entertainment than . . . a five-hour Baroque opera might be, when produced faithfully in its latest critical edition," well, to say I feel sick to my stomach is no exaggeration.

  6. Hi Anon #7, I totally cosign. I think the worst part of this is how it reinforces the idea that Baroque opera is difficult and miserable and unfit for the average audience member. I've seen lots of Baroque opera productions that were way more genuinely fun and attention-holding than this supposedly super-accessible pasticcio was.* (Also many that were more moving, but apparently we don't care about that.)

    Except one thing. I am also disappointed in Christie and DiDonato and Daniels but Placido? That guy does anything.

    *Try Ariosti's La fede ne' tradimenti, which I just looked at again when I put in my Best of 2011 list. A girl dresses up as a magician's assistant and convinces the villain to let her into his evil lair because her master has read the stars and they say there's a treasure buried in his backyard so she wants to go dig for it. Beat that with a stick, Enchanted Island.

  7. Delightful review, thank you. If more newspaper reviewers were both as entertaining to read and authoritative perhaps we'd still have classical music critics in the provinces. Sadly, the list of arias used in the pastiche seems to have disappeared. Is there another link? I'd love to be able to identify the music as I'm listening to the Sirius and/or cinema broadcasts.

  8. Thank you for the link. I will keep it handy for the moviecast. Danielle de Niese's "approximatura" (lovely) was still in evidence at times Wednesday but I must say she showed tremendous verve in taking on the music at Christie's tempos. I don't know what his attitude is to his singers but it seemed as if he was indicating to her: "I dare you to take it this fast" — and she did. She was never dull, which wasn't true of everyone in the cast. For what it's worth, I saw Rinaldo twice, first in Ottawa then at the premiere in New York in 1984. "Shovelled on stage" (per Anonymous#7)? Not quite. It was beautifully cast (I'll never forget Sam Ramey's entrance from on high or Benite Valente as Almirena) and attractive to the eye, or at least to my eyes. Marilyn Horne looked like a weapon of mass destruction in her breastplate but a gorgeously accoutered one. The edition was corrupt, as was widely publicized, but for some of us conductor Mario Bernardi and the cast worked a certain magic. The production started me on a life-long exploration of Handel's operas and I still from time to time draw out the broadcast recording to sample. The performance style has dated but superb vocalism never does.

  9. It's funny, I never really thought of it as being an attempt to make Baroque opera more palatable to n00bs, I kind of thought it was more an attempt to create some kind of all-star, extravagant show piece (like a holiday Event for adults?) and Baroque repertoire is the only repertoire in the world of opera production that people are pretty okay with manipulating and otherwise hacking to pieces. (The Tamerlano I worked on in DC had a duet inserted from another Handel piece because Domingo wanted to sing a duet with Sarah Coburn, and da capo and B sections were cut on the fly more than a few times – though even after that we still had to hold our breath every night wondering if we would run over and have to pay the orchestra overtime.) And then the Met can maybe perform something Baroque that doesn't totally get lost in that opera house – if anything they can say they do more Baroque now! 8D

    I was intrigued by the idea, and I try to support instances when an operatic text is not being treated like a sacred text, unchangeable, andstraight from the hand of God (or Wagner). I'm disappointed that the opera itself has apparently been so poorly crafted (and that they made it so long!).

    I completely sympathize with your existential crisis. Technically speaking, opera and I are on a break until we work through some issues. I think opera is approaching a crossroads (I hope…).