Thursday, December 29, 2011

Met Dress Rehearsal Review: (Cliche/Pun Alert) "The Enchanted Island" is Enchanting!

By David Salazar (For December 28 Dress rehearsal)

Please keep in mind that this review is of a dress rehearsal, so there are many factors to consider when reading it, the first being that the performance started at 10:30, which is not a normal performance hour for singers. However, the rehearsal was conducted like a live performance, and for this reason I take the liberty of treating it as such and writing a review. I will also be unable to attend any of the other Enchanted Island performances, making it necessary for me to lay my thoughts out here.  

For the first time this season, Peter Gelb has finally held up his end of the "theater first" bargain when it comes to his new productions. And make note, this is one of the finest productions to grace the Met stage in years.

For those who do not know, "The Enchanted Island" is a pastiche: a narrative combination of diverse arias and ensembles from different works and composers of the baroque period. Back in the 18th Century, it was normal for singers to interpolate arias from different works to suit their needs, and thus the pastiche was eventually adopted on a regular basis. The Met usually does not present baroque opera (the hall is much too large in many cases), but it seems appropriate that this sort of approach would be taken to reinvigorate the style into the repertoire.

The story and libretto, written by Jeremy Sams, borrow heavily from Shakespeare's "The Tempest," with a twist on "A Midsummer Night's Dream" mixed in. "Balanced" is probably the most appropriate manner to describe Sam's libretto. At the center of the story is Prospero, an elderly tyrant who once loved Sycorax, the former ruler of the Island. He abandoned her, stole away her spirit Ariel, made her son Caliban his slave, and took control of the island. Sycorax withered away into an unpleasant looking hag seeking revenge. Prospero also has a daughter Mirando who he hopes to marry off to Ferdinand, a nobleman. So he promises to free Ariel if she will conjure a spell to bring Ferdinand to shore and make him fall for Miranda and she for him.  Courtesy of Sycorax and Caliban's sabotage, Ariel conjures up the wrong spell and washes up the wrong ship, which actually holds the four lovers (Demetrius, Lysander, Hermia, Helena) from "A Midsummer Night's Dream." When Ariel confuses the men for Ferdinand, and Sycorax attempts to take one of the ladies for her son, all hell breaks loose and we are treated to some arresting comedy.

And yet amidst, the incredible comedy there is weighty drama. Prospero realizes that his age is withering away and sings an existential lament at the end of Act 1. It is entitled "Confusion, Chaos" (originally "Pena tiranna" from Handel's "Amadigi di Gaula") and while it relates the events that have transpired just now on the island, it also emphasizes Prospero's look at his own life which is filled with regrets and no real satisfaction. 

The musical selections were also well balanced with a nice mix of fast, slow, short, and long arias that never dragged or pushed the drama uncomfortably. For the most part, the new text inserted into the music worked well. A Handel Quartet was transformed into a sextet, which while not necessarily in style, certainly worked dramatically. Despite the music being from 5 or 6 different composers and multiple works, it flowed and blended well together, another mark in favor of the musical pre-production team.

It actually feels like its happening before our eyes. 
For anyone that is familiar with my reviews, you will know that I absolutely adored Phelim McDermott's "Satyagraha" interpretation. With "Enchanted Island" he reinforced that respect and admiration I had for him. The production is simply magical in every conceivable manner. The set has a large arch that extends across the horizontally with one side delineating Prospero's book filled study while the other half portrays the swampy habitat of Sycorax. In the center of the arc is where most of the productions numerous effects occur. There are video projections, more traditional set designs, flats, etc. However, McDermott and company are able to combine all of these elements to create numerous transcendent moments. As Ariel descends into the depths of the ocean, possibly Atlantis, a video projection puts us into Ariel's perspective and flies us above the water, then into it, and then descends us to Neptune's home. A practical set behind the screen lights up revealing the God and his other sea creatures, while the projection simply adds water ambiance (fish, bubbles) to truly make it feel as if they were underwater. My description may not be sufficient in making you feel just how realistic and wondrous the effect ultimately is, but it seamlessly transitions from one area of the ocean to the next. Same goes for a shipwreck earlier in the work in which a combination of flats, and a video screen projection create the feeling of a live and spontaneous ocean taking down the ship. The video projections also breath with life as Caliban explores the forest with his new lover. Even the main arch projects animation, becoming the face of a monster during the opera's splendid ballet (this is the type of ballet that would have made Des McAnuff's lousy Walpurgis Nights salvagable). Some flats of trees descend on the stage later and projections of animals climbing up the tree add vibrancy to the experience. At the start of the opera, Prospero studies a globe in his hand and moments later, that globe is projected in the center of the stage, and we slowly zoom into it past continents and into the middle of the ocean where we find the ship that Prospero is studying. Seemingly simple tricks, but all brilliantly executed. I recall another director this season (and last) attempting to create a magical realm with the use of video projections, but his work, to this point, has been an abject failure. And it cost over $15 million. And the machine that runs the projections doesn't always work properly.  McDermott not only knows how to make magical projections that work, but also projections that immerse and astound the audience. In case you didn't get that, McDermott should have been entrusted with the Ring Production. Maybe Gelb drops Lepage's "Deus Ex Machina" and gets a newer, cheaper, and better one from McDermott in a few years (Hint hint, wink wink).

(As a side note, I watched the performance from Parterre and wondered if some of the effects upstage could be viewed from family circle. For the most part, I think all the projections and stage effects are viewable from anywhere in the theater, but there are a few uses of deep space that I believe are suspect. This is a concern I've voiced about numerous productions and one which I hope will be addressed better in future works. Faust still takes the cake for being the most inconsiderate.)

But this isn't simply a projection of showing environments and effects. There are some interesting directorial colors and flourishes that McDermott adds that demonstrate his sense of creativity. As Ariel brings "Ferdinand" to Prospero for the first time to achieve her freedom, a series of balloons and a massive sign welcoming Ferdinand appear projected in the middle of the stage. Upon realizing this isn't the man everyone is looking for, the balloons fly away and some pop on the top of the arch in a realistic manner. During Prospero's aforementioned aria, clocks and machinery are projected on the screens, emphasizing his time running out, life moving on without him, and the ultimate lack of control he has over the proceedings despite his every attempt to control them. These clocks and machinery show up throughout, emphasizing the idea that no one in this story has any sort of control over existence and its happenings.

Even some of the costumes had a narrative of its own. Watching Sycorax transform from a decrepit hag to an elegant maiden throughout the performance was a nice stroke from the production. These were traditional costumes overall, but nothing over the top or distracting from the action.

McDermott seems to have a strong rapport with his cast as it seemed that not one single beat went amiss in the staging of the drama. I never felt like one single dramatic moment was forced or untrue. Some highlights include Sycorax consoling her son's broken heart. He seems to violently reject her every attempt and brushes her off constantly. However, just as she is about to leave he violently puts his hand on her wrist and for that second one feels that he may be about to unleash his full strength on his mother. Instead, he brings her to him in an embrace, letting out his pain in her arms. Beautifully touching. Neptune complains about his own powerlessness in the world, but suddenly realizes that he is a god and his complaining is for naught. Seems ridiculous, but Domingo's timing here is impeccable and makes for brilliantly comic timing that would seem dull in the hands of others. Obviously these acting moments are clearly a tribute to the strong cast, but the consistency and effectiveness definitely indicate strong actor-director relationships.

As if the production was exemplary enough, the cast was top notch from top to bottom. It must be noted that considering the house, this opera was not performed in traditional baroque style, despite having baroque gestures littered throughout. Leading the charge was counter tenor David Daniels. He does not have a huge voice, but more than makes up for it with finesse and delicacy. When the necessary dramatic heft was demanded, he was more than up to the task. He seemed to be a bit under duress in the coloratura passages of his first aria and his breath was not steady, but he more than made up for it with a virtuosic coloratura display in his second aria. He punctuated the night with two slow arias: the aforementioned "Chaos, confusion," and "Forgive me, please Forgive me" ("Ch'io Parta" from Handel's Partenope). His delicate phrasing, his baroque sensibilities, and his appropriately reserved but heartfelt intensity were on full display in these gorgeous pleas. He was surprisingly absent from the stage for long periods of time, but made his presence felt whenever he was there.

Joyce DiDonato was another big star promoted for this work. She played Sycorax, the woman scorned and decaying with such a sense of grandiosity that captivated at every turn. Her revenge aria (from Handel's Teseo) was particularly thrilling for numerous reasons. She has an extended note on the word "Maybe" before exploding into difficult coloratura. DiDonato started this note piannissimo and then slowly increased its volume and intensity, preparing us for the explosion, but then bringing it back down in traditional baroque style. This effect created a nervous tension and really emphasized the bewitching power of DiDonato's Sycorax. When the fireworks came, she lit up the stage with tremendous control of her runs. But that was not all. She added some low notes that I never knew she could have. She descended her voice to that of a contralto and while the notes did not contain a great deal of potency and even had a bit of an unpleasant timbre, it was clear that we were experiencing the dark side of Sycorax, her snarl, her anger, her thirst for vengeance. When she had to comfort her heartbroken son, "Hearts that Love can all be Broken" she sang with the delicate, elegant voice that she has become known for. I know that DiDonato is one of the great singers of this generation, but I had never seen so many compelling facets of her artistry on display in one performance.

Luca Pisaroni came into his own as Leoporello a few months ago in the Met's new Don Giovanni. He  proved once more that he is fast becoming a superstar with his turn as the ever unhappy Caliban. Caliban in this production is nothing attractive to look at; he looks more like a washed up monster than any kind of human. Pisaroni's Caliban didn't seem to know how to react to other humans either, not knowing how to temper his strength at all and often causing himself problems because of it. Pisaroni matched his character's undeniable strength with his own resonant and potent voice. He carried the workload of the arias, singing more than any other character. I would like to note that Pisaroni did not seem completely at home with the coloratura, often skipping notes to keep up with the orchestra and leading to what sounded like sloppy singing. I won't pin it on him completely, but more on that later.

The Costumes were also pretty good. 
Danielle De Niese had a breakout performance as the comic spirit Ariel. She essentially dominates the action from start to finish while also imbuing the opera with its charm. Of all the singers on stage, it was clear that DeNiese was having the most fun. And why shouldn't she? She gets to concoct potions and create storms; conjure love charms on young lovers; then chase them around to reverse the spells; she gets to swim underwater to find the God Neptune and then convince him of his power. She gets to do it all. And then for all her hard work, she's set free.  De Niese established herself as a top-flight versatile actress than seemed to know no bounds. Her singing was also equally striking though sometimes inconsistent. She clearly puts so much into her performance, that sometimes its too much in her singing and some notes sound overwrought. She had some intonation issues in Act 2 sextet, mostly noticeable because she dominates the music with long notes that form the harmonic basis for the music. But during her final aria "Can you feel the Heavens Reeling" ("Agitata da due Venti" from Vivaldi's Griselda), a tour-de-force for any singer, she was simply superb. The coloratura, the sound, the confidence, the joy of being free transcended everything she had done before. I look forward to seeing De Niese develop as an artist on the Met Stage.

Placido Domingo was the final Mega Star to sing in this performance. Despite being 70 years old and singing over 130 roles, Domingo has surprisingly never played a God... until now. And for good portions of his short role, he reminds us why he can be considered one of the gods of the opera world. His voice was filled with a youthful timbre that many singers half his age could only hope for in their prime. His first aria "Who dares to call me?" from Handel's Tamerlano showcased Domingo's  trademark legato and suave phrasing. He sounded a bit overpowered by the chorus and orchestra in the following ensemble, but it was hardly his fault (again, see later). His final piece near the end of the opera exemplified his robust strength and vocal control, even at 70. I would like to note that Domingo did have a few moments where he looked over at the prompter for support and there were others where her voice was audibly shouting out words to him. But this is simply a small side note in the context of a largely successful portrayal.

The rest of the cast was equally impressive. Lisette Oropesa sang Prospero's daughter Miranda and was likely the biggest standout of the entire night despite her small opportunities to shine. Her Act 1 aria in which she sings about the face she keeps dreaming of displayed her sweet voice filled with confidence and fine phrasing. She almost lost control of the aria (not her fault, see later), but remained poised throughout and made it one of the most remarkable displays of commitment and artistry. She may have been an innocent Miranda, but her portrayal had a certain seductive charm, justifying the other men falling for her.

Counter-tenor Anthony Roth Costanzo arrived late in the second act as Ferdinand, but immediately won one of the biggest ovations of the night after singing his hopeful aria "With no sail and no rudder- gliding onwards" (Io ramingo-Sussurrate onde vezzose" from Handel's Amadigi di Gaula). He possesses a silky and flexible counter tenor that caresses with every phrase. His duet with Oropesa was another vocal high point as both singers matched one another note for note, phrase for phrase in gorgeous chamber singing.

Layla Claire (Helena) and Elizabeth DeShong (Hermia) were vocally agile as the frustrated sisters. DeShong in particular had a confident entrance aria that includes bravura display in her coloratura and cadenza. In contrast to Oropesa's innocent warmth and idealism, these two women were portrayed in less appealing but no less charming light. Claire did play up the sexual element during some hilarious scenes with Caliban in the forest.

While it was clear that singing was not in baroque style, Paul Appleby's (Demetrius) singing in his first aria seemed a bit labored and heavy even for the romantic approach. However, shortly afterwards, he more than made up with it in his duet with Oropesa and the eventual sextet where his gleaming tenor was a nice contrast to the two counter tenors and Domingo's heldentenor. This Demetrius, like the Helena and Hermia was a pathetic lover, almost begging Miranda for her love. Elliot Madore's robust Baritone gave Lysander confidence and assurance. He definitely projects to have a healthy career.

It is likely that the reader has noted my writing "more on this later" in regards to singer's shortcoming throughout the performance. I am about to elaborate. Last season, Sir William Christie had a (to put it nicely) poor debut in Mozart's "Cosi Fan Tutte." But going into this, I figured that everyone deserves a second chance, and Christie was going to be doing something (supposedly) that he had a big hand in (he selected some of the music) and was a specialist in. Unfortunately, I barely have anything good to say about the rehearsal performance. He rushed the orchestra more times than I could keep count of, almost to the detriment of his singers. He almost abandoned Lisette Oropesa to her own luck in her aria as he could not keep the difficult orchestral accompaniment with her. He rushed DiDonato's vengeance aria both times, leaving her almost without breath and some spotty coloratura. The same went for Pisaroni in his faster arias. The poor man was practically chasing the orchestra and inserting uncomfortable breaths in the middle of the runs. He drove the orchestra too hard during Domingo's Act 1 Ensemble, overpowering the singer. There were even a lot of spotty intonation issues as well, something I rarely hear from the Metropolitan Orchestra. However, the March leading us through the ocean and to Neptune's throne was well executed, as was the Alcina overture that started the opera. These moments exemplified the Baroque master in his glory. Save for these moments, I really wish another conductor had been entrusted with this incredible performance. I have great respect for Mr. Christie and know that his best intentions were put into this work (and this was a rehearsal), but unfortunately, the results were far from optimal.

Ultimately however, I believe that everyone that sees this work will be in for a treat. It is Peter Gelb's finest achievement this season in terms of New Productions (and may end up being his highlight when all is said and done). The staging is complex, elegant, pleasing to the eyes, though provoking in some instances, and highly entertaining. The music is well balanced and fluid and a great way to introduce this repertoire to the Met public. Most importantly, the cast was in fine form and promises to provide a strong run of performances for its adoring public. To be vulgarly blatant, "The Enchanted Island" is enchanting.

I apologize for no new photographs. Unfortunately there have been no new photos as of my posting this. When they come in, I will replace some of the photographs I have placed here.  Also, for a list of all the musical numbers in the opera and their origins, check out this post we made a few days ago.


  1. Glad it was so good! I loved the HD performance!

  2. I actually don't know what you are talking about with some of these singers. De Niese is so shrill in her upper range its disgusting to listen to. Domingo is past his prime, he woblles through the night. DiDonato has some ugly low notes she should never attempt. Daniels has no upper range. The supporting cast of no names was solid. The production was nice, but nothing ground breaking. Conducting was eh...