Saturday, February 04, 2012

Met Opera's Enchanted Island: Distance and Intimacy

(reflection on a live performance of THE ENCHANTED ISLAND, seen in HD broadcast two days ago. )

"Devised" by Jeremy Sams, THE ENCHANTED ISLAND is what Sams calls a "mash - up" of Shakespeare plays, Baroque composers' music, 18th century stage conventions and the latest stage gadgetry.   Every scene brought a smile of appreciation for the canny ways in which Sams and director Phelim McDermott mixed and matched their resources.   This was created frankly to be a vehicle for the Met's best Baroque talents.

So, being all about showcasing technique and technology, borrowing its characters from well-known sources, how could we be drawn in to the story?  Two of the characters are played by counter-tenors (David Daniels as "Prospero" and Anthony Roth Costanzo as "Ferdinand"), their every entrance a shock at the strong high voices emerging from these grown men.  How could it be real to us with so much blatant artifice?

Unlikely as it seems, the production arouses a great tide of affection.  The stars' voices astounded as great athletes' most amazing feats would do.   Danielle DeNiese's voice skipped skyward and laterally as her character "Ariel" would do, while she got laughs for adolescent petulance and energy.  Joyce DiDonato as the witch "Sycorax" swelled a single pitch from pianissimo to painfully loud on the word "Maybe" in one aria, and projected character as well as the notes -- especially in a scene where she laments "a mother's pain" at being unable to mitigate her son's agony at rejection.  With great dignity, bass Luca Pisaroni plays the son "Caliban" in white face makeup and a lugubrious body suit, part turtle, part gorilla.   The moment when a magic potion wears off and his only girl friend suddenly runs away from him is the only moment that resonates as real world emotion;  all the rest is cued by magic and music, and makes us smile.

The real love story here wasn't to be found in the plot, but in the love of the Baroque music evinced by all concerned.   Conductor William Christie is a Baroque specialist, an expert at revealing this music to audiences.  The music was certainly a revelation: the instrumental lines rose and fell in sympathy with the vocal lines, the orchestra rocked and keened, belying the notion that Baroque music is staid and polite.   The novel twisting of the familiar stories, the spectacle, and the clear English lyrics all served to close the distance between us and that music of a distant time. 

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