(Swans - February 13, 2012) And what was the Enchanted Island? Why that very same island on which the exiled Duke of Milan finds himself in Shakespeare's play The Tempest. But about halfway through the opera a pair of lovers finds themselves shipwrecked on the island and they turn out to be the pair of lovers from another Shakespeare play, A Midsummer Night's Dream. Imagine, mixing up two different plays into the same plot. Audacious, what? But the polymath Jeremy Sams who "devised and wrote" this opera is described in Wikipedia as "born 12 January 1957, London, England [and] is a British film director, writer, translator, orchestrator, musical director, film composer, and lyricist." Well, Sams, whose credits in the theater are a mile or two long, thought it would be a peachy idea to write an opera for the Metropolitan Opera at their commission, appearing under their aegis for the first time.
But rather than write some new music of his own, Sams reached into a bag of his containing some little-remembered gems from the music of the Baroque era by composers "George Frederick Handel (1685-1759), Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741), Jean Philippe Rameau (1683-1764), and others." As to those unidentified "others" it would be quite intriguing to discover who they might be. (The French composers Andre Campra (1660-1744) and Jean-Marie Leclair (1697-1764) are also mentioned in the Met's Web advertising.) As Sams described his searchings and choices, "Handel wrote about 43 operas, and I've listened to every single one of them." But trying to figure out which composer was which of the three named great names as the opera unfolded and "enchanted" its audience was problematic. That was the one disappointing thing to me, as the two Saslavs watched this stunning presentation from the Met live in HD at our local theater in Longview, Texas, the complete lack of identification of what the individual numbers might have been, chosen by Sams to flesh out his newly invented plot. (However, if you go to the Met's Web site and Sams's interview, he will let you in on some of the composers and operas he had selected from.) Since Sams is described as having "written" the opera we can assume that the libretto, if not the music, was of his own fresh invention. And it was highly skillful indeed with plenty of end-of-line as well as multiple internal rhymes to keep the poetic fancy of the audience working throughout following the English subtitles. Sams said he had based his poetry in the libretto on John Dryden (1631-1700) and Alexander Pope (1688-1744).
What the audience experienced in this work was the revival of a three-hundred-year-old tradition, the tradition of the pastiche. Back in those palmy days of Italian opera, theater music (indeed most other music as well) was expected to be "new music" fresh from the composer's pen to supply novelties for its avid audiences. (Mozart's throwing out the newly written manuscript of the Overture to the opera Don Giovanni to his helpers below for delivery to the theater on the very eve in 1787 of the first Prague performance is the quintessential story of that phenomenon.)
Our present concert and opera practice of reviving and constantly performing repertoire hundreds of years old would have seemed puzzling and highly unsatisfactory to the enthusiastic audiences of those days. And schedules were fast and brisk as well. Composers often found themselves running out of time for their new commissions and resorted to interpolating not only parts of their own previous works and often rewriting the stories, (Rossini's adaptation of the overture to his Elisabetta, Reina di Inghliterra as the overture to his newly composed Barber of Seville the following year in 1816 demonstrates that.) but pieces stolen from other composers as well. Well, the music of The Enchanted Island was completely stolen from beginning to end from the works of the composers mentioned above. But what a delight it proved to be. And not only Sams was involved with the choosing of the numbers. As several of the singers pointed out in their backstage interviews they too had plenty of choices in the matter, often offering up a few of their own favorites, some of which were to be eventually included in the opera.
And the casting and singing! What salvos of virtuosity were constantly issuing from the big guns of leading present-day world operatic stages! Not only one countertenor but two to bring back the days when the castrati (the last one of whom died in Italy in 1906) used to blast out their high notes in the highest range of women but with the vocal strength of men.
David Daniels as Prospero and Anthony Roth Costanzo as Ferdinand, the lover intended by Prospero for his daughter Miranda (sung by Lisette Oropesa), were stunning in their vocal power and sensitivity of expression as the plot moved from ire to sadness to triumph. The same could be said for Prospero's captive spirit, Ariel, sung superbly by coloratura soprano Danielle DiNiese. And for mezzo-soprano Joyce Di Donato as the witch Sycorax, seduced and abandoned by Prospero when he first came to the island. And for baritone Luca Pisaroni as Caliban, Sycorax's son, whose sexual frustrations burst out often into angry arias. But topping in the reputational sense this cast of vocal all-stars was none other than tenor Placido Domingo himself as the god of the sea, Neptune.
This role was described by Sams as having been especially created for this plot and this role was Domingo's 136th! Surely a record unmatched in the whole history of opera and Domingo even circa 70 years old with a voice as commanding as ever and with diction (English with a slight Mexican accent) always perfectly clear. (See the postscript below to read about his role just previous to this.) In his backstage intermission interview with soprano host Deborah Voigt, Domingo offered the fact that though he had played many types of characters in his first 135 roles, this was his first role as a god! Despite two impressive turns at the end of each of the two acts, Domingo hoped that his role would be expanded when the opera was presented again.
The four lovers from A Midsummer Night's Dream were Lysander, Demetrius, Helena, and Hermione. Frustratingly enough, the singers who created these roles were nowhere identified in the programs or on the Met's Web site, just briefly on the screen as it swirled by. As excellent as they all were, Hermione proved herself a mistress of superb vocal technique and stunning virtuosity and accuracy. The concluding chorus of triumph, sung by the entire cast facing the audience, seemed to be a rousing cousin to the Halleluja Chorus in Messiah. Sams referred to a Coronation Ode on the Web site, so perhaps this was that one.
And the sets and costumes! As designed by Phelim McDermott, a fine revival of the old Baroque stages and their transformational tricks and magic in which flat sets were turned into bosky woods, various ships on storm-tossed seas, sunny beaches, and underwater kingdoms, aided by 21st-century applications of computer projections. If our modern techniques had been available to the old Baroque set designers they would have used them too, I'm sure. Choreographer Graciela Danielle staged beautifully the ballet episode in the second act in which Caliban conjures up various low-life sexual opportunities and discovers a multitude of ugly people with whom to dance. The exotic-sounding dance music led me to conclude that we were listening to Rameau's music. Rameau specialized in conjuring up exotic musical climes and idioms in his opera scores. And Sams did identify Rameau's authorship on the Met's Web site. Experienced Baroque conductor William Christie conducted expressively and tightly throughout.
Postscript on Domingo: The Miracle Man of Opera in Excellent Form -- Placido Domingo as Pablo Neruda
Thanks to television we were able to observe the miracle man of opera keeping on doing what only he can do: Placido Domingo at age 70+ keeping on singing like a man 50 years younger and adding still another role to his 130+ that he has created and commanded over the decades. Just previous to his role as Neptune in The Enchanted Island he recently created the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda in an operatic version of the 1994 film Il Postino composed by Daniel Catan (1949-2011) and premiered by the Los Angeles Opera in 2010. Catan has created a very Puccini-like lyrical and impressionistic evocation with a libretto in Spanish well suited to Domingo's style and vocal approach. Domingo as director of the Los Angeles Opera commissioned Catan to create this opera. Tenor Charles Castronovo was highly effective in the title role of the postman who delivered mail to the exiled Neruda on a tiny Italian island and who under Neruda's influence became a radical representative of his village and lost his life during a mainland political demonstration.
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