The Enchanted Island*
. . . is fabulous. FABULOUS.**
When I was signing up for this season’s Live from the Met operas I ordered a ticket for this one automatically when I read the cast list and it included Joyce DiDonato, but I wasn’t very happy about it. It’s a pastiche, or a mash-up if you want to be groovy***, with the storyline bodged together from THE TEMPEST and MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM and music stolen freely from all over the Baroque (I believe): Handel, Rameau and Vivaldi (I think†) are the chief sources. And there are Baroque costumes. And Baroque sets. I’d seen some stills and . . . ewww. However, I had the ticket, and there was going to be Joyce DiDonato.
I loved it. And the production, which is way, way, WAY over the frelling top, is one of the best things about it—and therefore proves that not merely low-key or tactful things but positively reckless, attention-grabbing and silly things can be done successfully on the opera stage.†† Yesss.
The singing is delicious, and even if I am prone to DiDonato worship, Danielle de Niese nearly steals the show. The story: Prospero, countertenor David Daniels, is sulking on his island. This is one of the interesting choices ‘writer and deviser’ Jeremy Sams made: this Prospero is a jerk. I’ve never liked Prospero—all right, all right, I’ve never liked Shakespeare, but I’ve thought that the whole mage thing was over-emphasized: he’s a self-pitying bully with some (fading) magic powers. Which is exactly what comes through here. Daniels does it very well: I had no problem with his voice on that stage, and he has authority which Prospero must have. He sends Ariel, played and sung with enormous charm and humour by de Niese, to shipwreck Ferdinand and then do the Puck trick with the potion to make sure he and Prospero’s daughter Miranda fall in love with each other. But Caliban††† has stolen Prospero’s dragon’s blood so that his mother, Sycorax, can reclaim her powers, which Prospero, that fine upstanding gentleman, stole when he stole the island from her. Without dragon’s blood the spell goes wrong, and Ariel instead wrecks a ship containing two honeymoon couples: Helena and Demetrius, Hermia and Lysander. Add Miranda and Caliban and there’s lots and lots of inappropriate pairings-off. Ariel, in a panic, with Prospero having tantrums and threatening to lock her‡ back up in her holly tree, asks Neptune for help. Neptune finds Ferdinand and gives him a shove in the right direction, the lovers are sorted, Prospero frees Ariel, Sycorax regains youth as well as power‡‡ (and her island), and all ends with general rejoicing except for poor Caliban who liked having a girlfriend and doesn’t have one any more.
There isn’t enough of Sycorax. Her first aria is amazing. DiDonato goes from being a crippled hag to being a powerful woman in the prime of life over the course of the opera‡‡‡ but that first aria when she gimps out and yowls about what has happened to her—DiDonato makes some genuinely ugly noises, snarling below her range, and it’s riveting. ISLAND is such an ensemble piece nobody gets a lot of solo time . . . but I still wanted more of Sycorax. One of the dumb reviews that I’m refusing to link to says that ISLAND is all fluffy and throwaway—um, Sycorax is not fluffy. And Caliban really is the one who isn’t saved. He’s sung with dignity and pathos by Luca Pisaroni, who I had some caveats about as a rather too twitchy Leporello, but he’s excellent here. He’s not a particularly nice monster, but he still has his feelings and his dreams, and he’s the only principal at the end who hasn’t got what he wanted.§
. . . I can’t frelling believe that the Met is so cheap and/or careless not to produce a complete cast list, but I’m failing to find it, and the synopsis they give you at the door of the theatre does not include the four MIDSUMMER NIGHT lovers. How totally crap is that? Miranda and Ferdinand are present, however; poor Miranda, Lisette Oropesa, has one of the most thankless roles I’ve ever seen. She comes on at the beginning singing, oh, dad, I Yearn For Something I Know Not What, and then wanders around falling for a new bloke every time Ariel makes another mistake with the fairy dust, till at the end she falls for Ferdinand. It is done for laughs but I found it still a bit cringe-making. I thought Ferdinand, Anthony Roth Costanzo, was one of their few real mistakes. He’s another countertenor, but of the exquisite variety which does not do well on the opera stage, and furthermore he’s a willowy young man and they dress him in gold, white and peach. Ick.
I’m trying to think how to tell you about the ridiculously glorious staging. It’s—well, it’s Baroque. There’s too much of everything, and it’s all curlicued and then super-curlicued. But it’s also gorgeous and appealing, and the special effects, of the island and the high seas, are terrific—when the MIDSUMMER lovers’ boat is drowned it’s genuinely scary. But the best—the best—is Neptune’s court. Ariel comes on stage wearing a diving helmet so you know you’re supposed to be underwater, and there are mermaids floating overhead to reinforce this idea.§§ And the chorus breaks into ‘Zadok the Priest’ and everyone in the audience breaks up: Neptune is played by Placido Domingo.§§§ But his court . . . well, there are all these ladies in semi-transparent leotards with scallop shells over their boobs, making wafty hand gestures, and behind them most of the chorus is standing behind, with only their heads showing, this gigantic series of painted props of naked people getting it on both with each other and with a variety of Things with Tentacles. I loved it. And Domingo is a cranky Neptune: at one point he says, I’ll listen to you but I may be too old and tired and irritable to help you. Here’s a god I could get along with.
It was a splendid evening out. I would guess ISLAND is still a work in progress; it seems to me there’s stuff they haven’t quite figured out yet—the duet between Sycorax and Caliban at the beginning of the second act, for example, to my sensibility, isn’t quite there yet. But it seems to me very much the best of Baroque: the lovely music without all the sing, sing with twiddles, sing something slightly different, sing the slightly different with twiddles, then do it all over again several times, that tends to weary the uninitiated. I was dismayed to hear the two women behind me not liking it and saying, well, why? What is it for?, and that they wouldn’t see it again. I’d see it again like a shot. I want to see how it goes on evolving, and wholly in love with DiDonato (and now de Niese) as I am I’d also love to see what other singers might do with those roles.
Yaay. Five stars.
* * *
** Also, I knitted a fresh eight rows of my LEG WARMERS during intermission which I think I’m not going to have to rip out. Which would be a first. This is also my first attempt after having shifted to easier yarn—this is just basic, uh, pink, cheap, acrylic, 6mm. Hellhound-blanket yarn in fact. No variable threads, no confusing heathery colour notes. I can see what I’m doing and I’m not forever getting hung up in weird little fuzzy artistic filaments. I’VE BEEN KNITTING FOR A YEAR AND I HAVEN’T FINISHED ANYTHING YET.
† I could look all this stuff up, yes. But I wasted way too much time trying to find a sensible review to link to and failed, and even if I don’t have to get up for service ring tomorrow morning^ I would like to get to bed some time.
^ Waaaaaaah. I was thinking, on my way to the theatre tonight, that it is a small kindness I have an opera on the night before my first official Sunday morning non-ring. Sunday mornings after an opera, and especially after blogging about an opera, are—were—especially gruesome.
††Moron from FAUST, take note.
††† Somebody tell me why Microsoft Word has Prospero and Ariel in its dictionary but not Caliban.
‡ Her? Him? There are plenty of trouser roles in opera, so that de Niese is a girl is not definitive. But Prospero calls Ariel ‘son’ and ‘boy’ in the first few minutes so I thought, okay, boy. But at the end, when Prospero has done the miser-leans-against-wall-and-becomes-generous thing and gives Sycorax back her island, Caliban says he wants a queen, and Ariel looks nervous and steps backward into the shadows. What? Since Caliban had spent a happy scene or two as Helena’s lover, I don’t think we’re supposed to be second-guessing Caliban’s gender preferences.
‡‡ Where can I buy some dragon’s blood? Is it good for writing novels?
‡‡‡ And oh how I want her dress from the beginning of the second act. Not the bright upbeat one at the end, which is too cheerful, although it’s a very nice cape. I want the dark cranky one with the sparkles.
§ In this version Prospero and Sycorax got it on before Prospero cast her aside like an old shoe and stole her island, her son, and her sprite. Such a nice guy. I believe his apology at the end about as much as I believe the Count’s at the end of FIGARO. Get out fast, Ariel, before he changes his mind (again), and Sycorax, keep your flying piranhas handy, and don’t be afraid to use them. But because I have a low mind^ I’m thinking this may cast an interesting light on the father of Caliban and the mother of Miranda. I totally see Prospero’s character coming through in his son.
^ So what do fanged muffins get up to when no one is around?
§§ Although the mermaids come back in the last scene, which is supposed to be on dry land. Never mind.
§§§ Maybe this is an in joke. Never mind . . .
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