The Enchanted Island

The Enchanted Island
January 21, 2012
Metropolitan Opera

It probably helped the cause that I went to The Enchanted Island without much extensive knowledge of baroque opera beyond a few famous arias here and there. Another help to the cause was the fact that I love The Tempest/A Midsummer's Night Dream. The greatest help to The Enchanted Island cause though was the excellent ensemble cast and the engaging and delightful production. Add in some genuine curiosity, a bit of weekend boredom, and it all added up to a very enjoyable afternoon at the opera.

Everyone knows that The Enchanted Island is not a real opera, but a "pastiche" of baroque arias (a selection of Handel, Vivaldi, Rameau, and Purcell) set to an entirely new libretto. It's the kind of thing that makes baroque purists mad, and if I had intimate, deep knowledge of the original operas, I'd probably be snooty and offended as well. But as I said, I don't, so I found the re-workings of these arias into a new setting clever. Jeremy Sams had a difficult job because baroque arias are full of repeats, and at times his libretto did sound trite and repetitious. But mostly, it was a decent re-working of Shakespeare's two plays, with a nod to 21st century sensibilities -- the pastiche's most sympathetic character is Caliban, who in Shakespeare's play is presented as a savage brute, and Prospero's dark side is very much the focus of the piece, as he rules the enchanted island with an iron fist, like a deluded, Qadaffi-like dictator. 

The Athenian quartet, all major voices headed for great things
I think a huge chunk of what made the venture so successful (from my point of view at least) was the incredibly strong musical values. From the conductor to the chorus, there literally wasn't a weak link in the entire cast. It's a sign of the high musical values that I didn't often have to read the English surtitles -- clearly the cast (with the exception of Domingo) worked long and hard on enunciating the English text in a crisp, understandable manner. I could hand out roses all day to the large and diverse cast, but I'll single a few out. Lisette Oropesa's (Miranda) bright, bell-like soprano and winning stage personality makes me think that in a few years, she could be a big star. Layla Claire (Helena) has one of the those beautiful, shining soprano voices that immediately makes you sit up, and check the program to see "Who is this girl? She's amazing." Elizabeth Deshong had a rich, fluid mezzo voice that also was the subject of much buzz "Who is this girl?" buzz after the performance. I'm not usually a fan of countertenor voices, but Anthony Costanzo (Ferdinand) has a bright, trumpet-like voice that reinvigorated the entire performance after the second act started to drag a bit. Luca Pisaroni was simply devastating as Caliban, presented here as a sympathetic, sensitive soul who can't believe his good fortune that he's fallen in love. The pastiche's most touching moment was the duet between Caliban and Helena in the woods of the "enchanted island," set to Handel's "Nel riposo e nel contento." For a brief minute, you believed their love could last. The vengeful sorceress is one of baroque opera's most tired cliches, but Joyce DiDonato as Sycorax was really the right mix of den mother and vengeful woman. Her voice had a touch of huskiness in the beginning that eventually disappeared. Her second act aria was beautiful and touching.

Sycorax and Caliban

But really, this was really ensemble music making at its finest. David Daniels was the right mix of imperious and deluded as Prospero. Some in the audience told me that he used to sound a lot better, but I haven't really followed his career and I thought he sounded fine this afternoon. He ended the first act on a strong note with the aria "We like to wrestle destiny" (taken from Handel's Amadigi di Gaula). Danielle de Niese's soprano can be a bit scratchy but as Ariel she was ideal. Impish, determined, funny. Even Placido Domingo's cameo as Neptune was unexpectedly endearing. Domingo in recent years has been eroding away some of the goodwill he's built among opera lovers with his middling ventures into Verdi baritone roles, and even worse, his even more middling ventures into conducting. But his walk-on was treated as an in-joke between the audiences and the singers, and even Domingo's garbled English and forgotten lines were somehow cute. William Christie made the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra sound believably baroque, even.

Does he know his lines? It's a mystery
The whole thing isn't perfect. The first act is extremely long (about an hour and forty minutes), but musically and dramatically, it holds your attention. The second act, although much shorter in length, feels much longer because it's weaker both musically and dramatically. It's sort of like all those Broadway musicals where the second act peters out. The Midsummer lovers run around a lot before reuniting, and the only genuinely poignant moment is Caliban's heartbreak and Sycorax's heart-rending aria  "Hearts that love can all be broken". There's an unfortunate ballet that had some pretty bad choreography. It felt like a time filler, and could be cut without anyone missing it, although I did like the colorful costumes of the dancers. Ferdinand's much-delayed arrival, Neptune's intervention, Prospero losing the island and asking for forgiveness, all seemed a tidy pat and even corny. Most of all, I noticed that the 44 numbers chosen probably fit the musical tastes of the directors and William Christie, but had an overwhelming tendency to be somewhat slow, elegiac melodies. After awhile, I'll admit they kind of blurred together and sounded the same -- very pretty, but except for some of Sycorax's music, lacking in the kind of vocal fireworks that are associated with baroque operas. 

But miraculously, these faults don't detract from the overall quality of the piece as both entertainment and music. The production team deserves a huge hand of applause -- they've created a production that's aesthetically pleasing, often humorous, and very well-directed in terms of person-regie. Phelim McDermott did the impossible -- he created a believably intimate, baroque setting in the often cavernous Met stage. Julian Crouch's sets (a mix of old-fashioned painted drops, scrims, and projections, which seem to be the latest craze in opera productions) really recreated an old-fashioned enchanted island, a frighteningly believable capsized ship, an ocean storm, or a ridiculously over-the-top underwater kingdom. The costumes were colorful, exotic, and very pretty. The retro-prettiness of the production is one of its main strengths.

Bravo to everyone involved in this venture for making something that had the potential to be a cheesy, expensive waste of both time and resources into a delightful entertainment for both opera lovers and maybe the more casual listener.


  1. YES! You expressed in print very much my reaction to the production, but for the fact that I had a bit less negative reaction to the length of act 1. I guess my love of Handel and Wagner has me accustomed to opera unfolding at length.

    If she continues to develop the promise of her Hermia, I believe Ms DeShong could have a very significant career.

  2. Thank you Will for your kind comments.


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