Sunday, January 15, 2012

Metropolitan Opera – Jeremy Sams’ The Enchanted Island. January 14, 2011.

Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center – Balcony A6 ($109.50).

Story.  Prospero asks the spirit Ariel to shipwreck Ferdinand’s ship so he can arrange for the marriage between Ferdinand and Prospero’s daughter Miranda.  Ariel makes a mistake and shipwrecks a ship with the couples Demetrius & Helena and Lysander & Hermia instead.  This starts the messy relationships that ensue: between Miranda and first Demetrius and then Lysander, and between Caliban and Helena.  Caliban is the son of Sycorax who was in love with Prospero but abandoned by him eventually.  Helena eventually comes to her senses and leaves Caliban, and Ariel brings together Miranda and the two couples and set things straight.  Ferdinand and Miranda falls in love, Sycorax forgives Prospero, and all is well.  Neptune comes out on a couple of occasions, once to help with the search for Ferdinand, and once to exhort people to do the right thing.

Conductor – William Christie; Prospero – Anthony Roth Costanzo, Ariel – Danielle de Niese, Sycorax – Joyce DiDonato, Caliban – Luca Pisaroni, Miranda – Lisette Oropesa, Helena – Layla Claire, Hermia – Elizabeth DeShong, Demetrius – Paul Appleby, Lysander – Elliot Madore, Neptune – Placido Domingo, Ferdinand – Jeffrey Mandelbaum.

First a few words about the genesis of this opera.  The front of the program says “A Baroque fantasy in two acts.  Devised and written by Jeremy Sams.  Inspired by Shakespeare’s The Tempest and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  Music by George Frederic Handel, Antonio Vivaldi, Jean-Philippe Rameau, Andre Campra, Jean-Marie Leclair, Henry Purcell, Jean-Fery Rebel, and Giovanni Battisa Ferrandini.”  To my understanding, this means the opera is a pastiche compiled by Jeremy Sams using parts of operas written by the long list of composers listed above.  Sams provided the libretto, and (probably) on occasion also adapted the music (he cites a sextet – the one sung by Ariel and the five confused lovers – based on a Handel quartet.)  The libretto is a made-up story combining elements of The Tempest and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

The premiere of the opera is at the end of 2011, and though I try to avoid reading a review of a performance I am about to see, I couldn’t help but read the writeup in the New York Times.  I will re-read that later, but for now remember it as being very positive, except for the fact the Domingo needed a lot of prompting (and even there the reviewer wasn’t being particularly harsh.)  While I try to make this my own writeup, I am sure I will be influenced by what I read there.

I don’t follow the singers world to see who is famous and who is not, so it is natural that I don’t recognize most of the people in the roster, with the exception of DiDonato and, of course, Domingo.  Indeed many of the artists are young, many are either in or a graduate of the Lindemann Young Artist Development Program.  Recently there has been a flood of them on the Met stage, and most of them do very well, a tribute to how successful the program is.

When I was reading the synopsis, I told myself it was going to be very confusing, and there was no way I could track the relationships since (given where we sat) everyone would look the same anyway.  Turns out I could follow the different characters with relative ease; probably a case of different parts of my brain work differently.

The staging is baroque-esque (so the Program Notes says) but enhanced with modern day projection techniques.  The sceneries are mostly 2-dimensional but work quite well.  There are harnessed mermaids swimming when Neptune comes out, and many sea nymphs with body suits and sea-shell bikinis (probably answering an earlier question I had for Das Rheingold).  The raindrops are quite realistic, and a bit of magic is involved, including fire eruptions and sparkle.  All in all an effective backdrop for what happens with the singers.

The stand-out in the cast has got to be Danielle de Niese singing the role of Ariel.  Not only is her singing superb, she also steals the show with her acting.  Good writing, undoubtedly, but she managed to pull it off.  There are some very demanding rapid runs that she pulled off without a glitch, and her voice carries well.  Some of the more comic moments are her coming to see Neptune in a diver’s outfit, and her carrying a small case when she leaves the scene.  A Melbourne native and a graduate of the Lindemann program, I suspect she will spend a lot of time outside her home country.

There are many examples of someone filling in a role at short notice and hits it big.  One has to wonder if that would be the case with Anthony Roth Constanzo who filled in as Prospero for a sick David Daniels.  Constanzo is listed as Ferdinand, whose role is limited to a couple of arias.  As Prospero he is a main character with a lot of exposure.  He was a bit unsteady at times and missed several words, but he improved tremendously as the show progressed.  He aria towards the end, begging Sycorax for forgiveness, earned one of the longest applauses I have seen at the Met.

The role of Neptune is well-suited for Domingo, someone close to the end of his singing career but still commands quite a presence.  (Let’s hope Domingo’s career as a conductor continues to succeed.)  We heard Domingo as Emperor Qin in The First Emperor and enjoyed his singing, even though the music was inscrutable. By that measure tonight was a disappointment: he was a bit mechanical and his diction was wildly off.  I don’t know if he was still looking at the prompts, or these professionals hide it very well.  Since he has sung close to 140 roles, I think giving him a pass is the reasonable thing to do.  Question is: does he want one?

I have mentioned on many occasions my puzzlement when women singers are used in the roles of young men.  Ariel, whom I understand to be a male spirit, is another one of those examples.  In this case things are not that bad, she has wings and is not really a person, anyway.  However, using Countertenors and their high voices in the roles of Prospero and Ferdinand is inexplicable.  I got very confused when Prospero and Sycorax were singing this duet, and sometimes DiDonato’s voice was lower than that of Prospero and I thus couldn’t tell who was asking for forgiveness and who was doing the forgiving.

If I have to characterize this story, it would have to be a comedy.  A comedy that works quite well, actually.   Memorable examples are the antics of Ariel and Lysander and Miranda discovering that their names rhyme.  Nonetheless, there are some poignant moments, in particular the one where Caliban has to come to realize that love isn’t in the cards for him.

In the Program Notes Sams laments the fact that there are too many good melodies and he could incorporate only a limited number in this work.  For instance, he uses nine from Vivaldi and claims there is at least 20 more he could have used.  Indeed at close to 3 hours (not counting the intermission) this is a long opera, but there are many repeats, several of which are “twice.”  Perhaps he could cut those repeats and make room for additional arias?  We are making this up anyway, so breaking the norm of doing repeats would be legitimate.  Of course that would involve additional orchestration and scenes, which I suspect is another factor in this.

I certainly enjoyed this more than I would have expected, but not so much as the New York Times review would lead me to believe.  The real test is what happens to this opera as time wears on?  Will it make its way to the genre’s standard repertoire, or will it eventually fade away like a ripple on a pond?

Before this, my attendance at operas based on Shakespeare’s plays always helped me understand the plays better.  No luck this time, though.  The characters are similar, but I couldn’t quite get if that’s what Shakespeare had in mind.

Anne mentioned to me as we were leaving that the Opera reminds her of Handel’s Messiah, and I said nothing of the sort, I didn’t hear any “I know that my Redeemer liveth” or anything similar in it.  And what is in the first paragraph of the Times review?  The finale is lifted from Handel’s Hallelujah chorus.  Not from the Messiah, but from “Judas Maccabaeus.”

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