Monday, 23 January 2012

The Enchanted Island at the Met - deeper than expected

Extravagance is the essence of baroque, but few houses can do spectacles as well as the Met. So when the  Met throws its might behind The Enchanted Island, it can create a spectacle worthy of the genre. At last Met technology put to good use - this is baroque as it should be done! William Christie is one of the great baroque specialists, and a guiding force behind Purcell The Fairy Queen at Glyndebourne in 2009. That may have been part of the inspiration for The Enchanted Island, for both take material from various sources and present them as glorious extravaganza. Christie and the Met also use some of the finest singers in the genre.
Perhaps the idea that The Enchanted Island is a "new" opera panics people. But why not? "Pastiche" carries negative connotations now, but didn't in baroque times when recycling was part of what went into theatre. Recordings didn't exist then, so composers were expected to re-use popular melodies so people could enjoy them again. That's also partly why baroque operas adapt similar ideas over and over. Audiences delighted in new ways of hearing old. How many of Vivaldi's operas were all "new" or even all Vivaldi? And how many adaptations of Ariosto and Tasso? The baroque aesthetic blended characters  from ancient antiquity and medieval myth in joyous riot. Even Mozart had no qualms about recycling a good tune. So snobbery about this kind of pastiche is misguided. Indeed, I suspect the choices made in The Enchanted Island are wittier than might be expected.

The secret to The Enchanted Island is to take the story as it comes,  just as baroque audiences would have done centuries ago. The basic premise is that Prospero has usurped Sycorax on her island, and pushes his weight around. That's why Shakespeare's The Tempest gets banned in Arizona. It's a simile for what happens when indigenous people are colonized by masters from over the seas. Caliban has long been seen as a metaphor for the Third World.  Perhaps Shakespeare wasn't political, but there's no reason why a reworking of the premise shouldn't tease out new meaning from an old story. Handel did it all the time, as did many others. William Christie and Jeremy Sams emphasize the anarchy inherent in the plot. Please read what Sams wrote for the British press here.

Prospero (David Daniels) rules the island but Sycorax (Joyce DiDonato) this time fights back, by simply changing dragon's blood for lizard's blood  in the spell Prospero sets for getting off the island.  Immediately, we know that this retelling of the basic story will be mischief!  So Ariel (Danielle de Niese) conjures up a boat. It's the first of many visual special effects which baroque audiences would have gasped at in admiration. Only it's the wrong boat! It's carrying the lovers from A Midsummers Nights Dream, who've already been cast in several guises before. Ariel connects to Puck, Caliban (Luca Pisaroni) to Bottom. Fun is of the essence. More fool those who can't see the humour in The Enchanted Island. In the cinema where I saw it, the audience was chuckling with delight.

Exceptionally good performances from Joyce DiDonato (Sycorax) and Luca Pisaroni (Caliban). DiDonato pretty much creates the part on her own, since it's hardly developed elsewhere, but fundamental to the background of the story. DiDonato is magnificent. Her singing ranges from ethereally high textures to animal-like growls. She's a nature spirit, connected to the mysteries in the jungles of her island. She's also an earth mother who loves her son just as much as Prospero loves Admir'd Miranda (Lisette Oropesa, singing in American). Caliban (Luca Pisaroni) is costumed as half gorilla, but with a sensitive side, (he likes flowers). Pisaroni is a natural actor, moving half crouched and intuitively, like an animal, yet his voice expresses deep emotional feelings.  In The Tempest, Prospero holds all the cards. In The Enchanted Island, the underdogs Sycorax and Caliban get a fair chance. This time, they're evenly balanced, and the meaning of the plot enhanced. Incidentally, the plot is driven by pe-existing baroque materials - nothing 21st century added. Sorceresses on enchanted islands abound throughout the genre.

Then, one of the most magnificent coups de théâtre in recent memory. Ariel calls on the God Neptune nd suddenly he arises from the ocean, surrounded by four mermaids, suspended from the roof. It's an image straight out of baroque fantasy, the sort of scene baroque artists used to paint, except this time it's done with modern stage techniques baroque stage designers could only dream of. It's fantastic in the true, baroque meaning of the word, totally artificial and gloriously splendid at the same time. Some of the chorus fill the foreground, others as singing heads in a backdrop that could come right out of an 18th century painted flat.    Since when did Gods rise up out of the sea, except in the imagination? And part of the baroque aesthetic is to push the boundaries of imagination. Only a house like the Met can pull scenes like this off so well.

This magnificent scene must have been stunning live, given the gasps from the audience, on screen and in the cinema. But it's absolutely fundamental to the whole concept of the plot. Neptune is the Deus ex machina around whom the resolution pivots. What a wonderful way to make the most of Placido Domingo!  He doesn't have to sing much (thankfully) but his acting skills are superb. Again, the anarchic humour in the text. "I'm old, irritable and tired", he sings with a merry grin, "I don't do the high seas". Pun, pun, pun for those who forget he used to be a tenor. It's a measure of Domingo's greatness that he can do acidly witty self parody like this, upstaging the elaborate ostentation around him.

The scene where Pisaroni as Caliban is surrounded by dancers isn't there merely to squeeze in a bit of Rameau but to show how he's "enchanted" by nature spirits half-animal, half-human like himself.  It's crucial to the plot because Caliban is trying his hand at magic spells and conjuring a new world, unintended,  where things will be more in tune with nature. It won't happen, though, as Prospero won't let it. The proscenuim, which magically transforms throught the evening from dense jungle to baroque fanatsy now turns dark, two glowing orbs like the eyes of a wild animal, the stage like a gigantic mouth swallowing Caliban's dreams. It's time now for Neptune to restore the natural order.  In another spectacular scene, Domingo as Neptune conjures up another magnificent boat, complete with the sort of rolling "waves" baroque designers made out of painted horizontal sheets, shaken up and down. At once "traditional" baroque design, with modern technology. At last Ferdinand (Anthony Roth Costanzo) appears. Miranda is saved, and Prospero returned to where he belongs. "Forgive me" he begs Sycorax, and maybe he means it, but our sympathies are with DiDonato's wonderful characterization. But baroque means happy ending, so all join in in standard ensemble, praising new beginnings. Excellent ideas, excellent cast and the Met Orchestra playing idiomatically even though they're using modern instruments (plus harpsichord). The Enchanted Island shows that the Met has huge potential.  Had this piece been heard at Glyndebourne, where audiences are receptive to baroque and to innovation, it would have been greeted with the acclaim that The Fairy Queen received. (read more here)  

And HERE is a link to my most recent post which has another link to something even better.


Doundou Tchil said...

I wonder how much of the negative pre publicity stems from internal politics at the Met? Seems like there are vested interests determined that Gelb should not succeed.

Doundou Tchil said...

Reading Bernheimer in the FT is worrying. No analysis, little logic, just extreme animus. What's his agenda? Is it a review or bile? Maybe the NYTimes is different but it reads like someone was actually listening.