Met Creates a Perfect Storm in Enchanted Island

Tuesday, January 17, 2012 - 12:00 PM

Imagination is a precious commodity and, among opera producers, it is often undone by hubris. When you see La Traviata, it could work on an empty stage or in plush settings, but only if the integrity of the work is respected. Many producers believe they have to give an opera a spin or a concept to make it “relevant.” They fail to accept that it is their job to understand, deeply, what makes the opera extraordinary and bring that forth.

That's what makes The Enchanted Island, the newest addition to the Metropolitan Opera's repertory, so extraordinary. It contains music from many centuries ago. But everything else about it is new -- and organic.

Because I personally know several members of the cast, it would not be right to discuss their performances. It is an excellent ensemble that includes David Daniels, Danielle de Niese, Joyce DiDonato, Plácido Domingo and Luca Pisaroni in leading roles and a group of younger singers (Paul Appleby, Layla Claire, Elizabeth DeShong, Elliot Madore, Lisette Oropesa, Anthony Roth Costanzo) who encourage me to think that there will be a new generation of stars in the next decade. In William Christie, the work has a conductor who is perhaps nonpareil in this repertory and he led it with vibrancy and tenderness. 

Instead, I would like to focus on what is particular about The Enchanted Island as a work for the stage. In the past, it was customary for a new opera to be written and then a production created for it. Technical and physical resources were more limited than they are today. Only Paris and a few other places had the capability to create storms, floods, earthquakes and other events of nature. This was the case at the time of Lully, Rameau and other French Baroque composers and was true again in the 19th Century for the stagings of grand operas by Rossini, Meyerbeer, Verdi and others. These grandes spectacles were dazzling but, at their best, were inspired by words and music to tell the stories of the operas.

Today, those who make opera productions have at their disposal a vast array of technological tools. This is wonderful if they are used intelligently and judiciously but, more often than not, “boys with toys” is the prevailing aesthetic. I am not a technophobe, but when technology becomes the attraction and the romance, it is not doing its job. It is there to serve, not dominate. That is one of the lessons of this production. 

I find that world premiere productions, which is to say stagings created for the first performances of a newly-written operas, tend not to be tech-heavy because smart producers (the stage directors who have the concept for the production and gather a design team to help realize his or her vision) want the music and text to come through. As has been documented elsewhere, The Enchanted Island is not a new opera per se, but rather a new work for the opera stage with a new story and libretto that has been cleverly inserted into music by many composers, primarily Handel, Vivaldi and Rameau. Much of it was selected by Jeremy Sams, the principal creator of The Enchanted Island, though pieces were suggested by certain singers and by Maestro Christie.  

Sams, who wrote the English-language libretto, cleverly drew elements from Shakespeare’s The Tempest and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Prospero, Duke of Milan, has been exiled to an island along with his daughter Miranda and Ariel (a sort of willful Tinkerbell). The island is ruled by the sorceress Sycorax (mentioned but not seen in The Tempest) and her beleaguered son Caliban. Faulty conjuring by Ariel causes a shipwreck and Helena, Hermia, Demetrius and Lysander from A Midsummer Night’s Dream are washed ashore. Another gaffe by Ariel rouses Neptune, who is expected to put things right.

A Common Vision

The fact that this show is called a “pastiche” has, I believe, served to diminish the way it is thought of by many people who consider themselves serious operagoers. “Pastiche” has come to mean a tossing together of some of this and some of that. But this is anything but a frothy confection. It is entertaining, to be sure, but also deeply affecting and often mesmerizing. The Enchanted Island works because it seems to have been forged as a common vision by all of its creators -- musicians, writers, directors, designers. It is a perfect storm, a series of elements that combine just so and create something great, gorgeous and awesome.

The work has musical and intellectual rigor, done with an 18th-century sense of optimism, balance and lightness. There are two acts, a suspenseful story with many surprises, a witty and well-choreographed (Graciela Daniele) dream ballet for Caliban, of all people, and a congruent arrangement of arias, duets, sung passages, recitatives and a notable relation between key signatures as the music moves along.

The only weakness in the show, I believe, is that the role of Prospero is underwritten. There was a commanding artist, David Daniels, playing a commanding character, but he did not have a part commensurate with his talents. While all the other cast members had great musical star turns, Daniels did not. He concluded the performance with a spoken monologue, as Shakespeare might have wanted, while an operatic evening would have benefited from a showstopping closing aria from the male lead who is also a charismatic and gifted singer. But this can be fixed and I hope it will be.

As well-made as the work is in terms of text and music, it ultimately needed the right kind of scenery, lighting, costumes and, above all, stage direction to make the storm perfect, and all of these elements are sublime. The production team, many of whom were involved in the 2008 Met premiere of Philip Glass’s Satyagraha, give us an object lesson in how to take music and words and turn them into vibrant, mesmerizing theater that serves an opera rather than burying it under a concept or gargantuan technology. Phelim McDermott, as producer, led a team that included Julian Crouch (associate director and set designer), Kevin Pollard (costumes), Brian MacDevitt (lighting) and 59 Productions, a Scottish design team that created animation and projections.

Fresh Ideas For Wagner

If Wagnerites set foot in the Met during a performance of The Enchanted Island, I am sure that quite a few of them will bemoan the fact that the new Met Ring cycle was assigned to Robert Lepage and his collaborators rather than Phelim MacDermott and his team. The fresh ideas and rich creativity in just the first act of The Enchanted Island far exceed everything that has been seen in the Das Rheingold, Die Walküre and Siegfried now on offer at the Met. I ardently hope that Götterdämmerung (opening on Jan. 27) will show us that we need to see the whole cycle to discover a great vision that resides in the staging.

The production of The Enchanted Island is made of painted drops, moveable pieces and lighting that is specific to mood and incident. It does not make a gargantuan machine its centerpiece. But it is much more than an abstract set with just a sofa, a clock and a lamp that are supposed to have metaphorical significance. Image after image is vivid, beguiling, story-specific and served the music. This production is a demonstration of how opera companies who are looking to economize (though nothing here felt cheap) can use lighting to create settings and effects.

The question of technology will come again on Jan. 21, when The Enchanted Island will have an HD transmission around the world. Audience members who aren't in the New York area should try and see this in cinemas. I wonder how such carefully created theater art will reproduce on a large screen when the production itself uses many projections? The subtle lighting will not be the same, of course, and that is a loss. But I plan to attend this HD and will listen to glorious singers perform heavenly music which, by itself, can put one on the enchanted island of one’s own imagination, a place we all need to visit as often as possible.

Photos:

1) Paul Appleby as Demetrius, Layla Claire as Helena, Elliot Madore as Lysander and Elizabeth DeShong as Hermia in 'The Enchanted Island.' (Ken Howard/Met)

2) Acene from the Met Opera production of Wagner's 'Die Walküre.' (Ken Howard/Met)

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Comments [13]

Carl Friedman from Baltimore

I haven't see Enchanted Island, and can't say that anything I have read would induce me to do so, but I must object to Mr. Plotkin's backhanded slap at the Lepage Ring staging. I have seen all of this Ring Cycle except Rheingold, and truly enjoyed the concept and staging. Also the singing (albeit with Gould and Dalayman in Gotterdammerung), and, of course, the Met orchestra with Fabio Luisi at the helm. The "machine" gave a very effective combination of the abstract and the realistic aspects of the Ring, without the absurdity of some productions (I don't want to see Martian Gods). It allowed for some delightful and colorful visual effects. Yes it has imperfections, and perhaps it did not give me the life-changing catharsis feeling that the Otto Schenk Ring did, but I thoroughly enjoyed every moment.

Feb. 12 2012 11:55 PM
Amanda from Astoria

What a beautifully enchanting piece! I was delighted by your passion and dynamic journalism on this particular piece, however I have much enjoyed all your blogs.
I particularly loved your attention to both the technical elements and the music, how the two work so wonderfully in tandem and compliment each other- the work of proper theatrical style and grace that is often lost in reviews or blogs about opera or theater. You brought the two together in perfection! Bravo Mr. Plotkin, I look forward to many more!

Jan. 24 2012 08:34 AM
The Marschallin from New York

I was worried about the "Pastiche" and I was worried about your opinion of it! Now I have seen it (Live in HD) and read your blog, and I am no longer worried! Both were wonderful, and I enjoyed mightily my snowy afternoon at the Walter Reade Theater and your insighta on the hows and whys I did!
I am sure I missed some of the colors and effects of the in-house performance, but on the other hand, I benefited from marvelous close-ups, and I adore the "incidentals" ie. interviews and behind the scene peaks. The music was glorious, as were the voices, costumes, sets, special effets, and even the humor. What was there not to like? And indeed, it is still a work in progress, so it will improve, like good wine, or blended liquors!

Jan. 23 2012 05:25 PM
Jeannette Pelet from Benalmadena Spain

On Saturday January 21st I prepared ahead of time to spend my birthday with 18 people, family and friends at the movie theater in Malaga (Plaza Mayor) to see "The Enchanted Island". No words to explain what we all felt and the great pleasure we experimented at the theater in direct with the MET where Jeannette Pelet I worked for many years as an asher. The setting was gorgeous, lively, colourful at all times, the singing spectacular even though "Prospero" could have had a better exposure for his wonderful voice. Danielle de Niese was a sparkle of happiness and her voice still rejoyces my heart today, 24 hours after the show. Congratulations for a spendid setting, lightning, cast all together for the mermaids and Neptuno and for the forgiveness to give us the true meaning of life and love. Thank you for a magical show!

Jan. 22 2012 02:18 PM
Lois Jeffrey from Bend, Oregon

Just saw Enchanted Island at the HD simulcast and thought it was terrific. I thought your comment about Prospero's role was important and hope he gets to sing more next time. Neverthless, having seen and loved many Baroque Operas, I thought this one was a brilliant updating without sacrificing the music or the noble elements of a Baroque story. I thought Sycorax's singing to Caliban about his broken heart was the high point for me. Thanks for your observations.

Jan. 22 2012 12:34 AM
Vicki Richman from Sugar Hill, Harlem

So, David Daniels is denied a "Vivi tiranno!" In fact that very aria could have replaced his spoken farewell, with a fresh English text celebrating young love and freedom for Ariel.

Jan. 21 2012 01:24 PM
Terry from New York

Hi Fred,

I truly hope the staging for "The Enchanted Island" is not overdone. I could not afford to see every opera I wanted to this season live, so I'll be seeing the "Island" on screen this weekend.

I wish the Met producers would listen to you and avoid overly intricate mises-en-scene. Ah well...

Jan. 19 2012 05:25 PM
Val from New York City

Enchanted Island left me breathless. I was indeed spirited away and carried to a place of pure magic. Thank you Fred for this insightful review of Enchanted Island--reading it evoked the beautiful memory of that special evening. I always look forward to your articles--so glad to see you back!!

Jan. 19 2012 04:08 PM
concetta nardone from Enchanted Nassau County

Glad to see that Mr. Plotkin is still writing his column. Been too busy to really read all the blogs. Enchanted Island sounds really interesting.
All the different composers getting together to make music for a Shakespeare work. What could be more wonderful? Great music and Shakespeare. Perfect together.

Jan. 19 2012 01:54 PM
David from Flushing

Perhaps there is hope for Ring because in Götterdämmerung, everything gets burned up! The current production gives new meaning to "deus ex machina."

Jan. 18 2012 09:21 PM
Stefano from The Enchanted Island of Manhattan

Fred, your absence on this blog of late has been deeply felt. This is the most intelligent piece I've read on the Enchanted Island. Other reviewers have made it sound like a cobbled together PR vehicle for the Met; you rightly assert that it's a formidable work of art in its own right and the product of thoughtful collaboration. Unlike Lepage's Ring cycle, which diminishes the operas and the performers, the Enchanted Island draws us in to the opera, involving the viewer in the team's great storytelling and showcasing the talent-rich cast. Let's hope Gelb brings back MacDermott, et al. for future productions.

Jan. 18 2012 09:06 AM
Cara from New York, NY

What an insightful Enchanted Island piece. I have read a number of articles about this new "pastiche," but some of the issues you raise here, as well as some of the comments you make, I simply haven't seen elsewhere. Thank you for shedding light, as always.

Jan. 18 2012 12:04 AM
meche from MIMA

Fred, I couldn't agree more. "Story specific" and "serving the music" are the important words here. Wishing that this production team had been given The Ring Cycle was my first thought 10 minutes into the opera!

Jan. 17 2012 05:17 PM

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Operavore is WQXR's digital 24/7 audio stream, blog and weekly radio show devoted to Opera. The Operavore blog features breaking news, expert commentary and reviews by writers Fred Plotkin, David Patrick Stearns and Amanda Angel. The stream features a continuous, carefully programmed mix of classic and contemporary opera recordings. The Operavore radio show on WQXR, features opera news bulletins from the around the globe, previews of new recordings, and interviews with the players and personalities on the scene.

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