The Met’s Enchanted Island is both very charming and sort of insubstantial. The impression one gets is that they are trying to give the audience the experience of what it would have been like to attend an opera in the eighteenth century, with the text in a familiar language, and the plot fairly contrived, and the whole thing not taken particularly seriously.
The overture is from Alcina, which makes perfect sense. Alcina is also an opera about an enchanted island. In an odd way, though, this choice undercuts what the Met is doing here, because one of the things about Alcina is that the music functions as a kind of metaphor for Alcina’s magic. The plot is creaky, but the music holds it together. In the case of The Enchanted Island, it doesn’t quite hold together. The magic hasn’t worked. The whole thing looks very pretty, and there are some nice moments in terms of music and singing, but it’s hard to care about it one way or the other. And it seems as if the production is out to charm the audience, or make us laugh, even at the expense of the emotions making sense. Ariel’s last aria, one of those baroque tour-de-forces, is followed by Ariel stopping short, plucking a little suitcase from the floor, and prancing off stage. It’s more about Danielle De Niese being cute than it is about whatever it was that she just sang.
David Daniels was sick and they replaced him with Anthony Roth Costanzo, which required a few other adjustments in the casting that aren’t important. Costanzo provided some very nice countertenor singing – his last aria of apology to Sycorax for stealing her island (it’s all very post-colonial, to which I have no objection), with its soft, floating high notes and elegant phrasing, was a real pleasure. The countertenors in general were on a roll last night. Jeffrey Mandelbaum as Ferdinand had me at his first aria, which emerged with that ideal smooth countertenor sound and a wonderfully delicate and clear articulation of every syllable. He and Lisette Oropesa (Miranda) also had a really nice blend of voices in their final duet.
Danielle de Niese as Ariel did basically what I expected her to do, which was to offer an utterly charming stage presence — she’s a natural dancer — and very good but not emotionally compelling singing. She’s got the rapid-fire coloratura for this music, and her voice sounds better than I remember from recordings. I had this impression that she was kind of chirpy, but the voice sounded softer-edged and much prettier than I recalled. But in general, the phrases don’t quite pull together into something that really grabs you. But as I said, she’s got the technique, and she is actually very young, only in her early 30s – makes me wonder what she’ll sound like in five or ten years.
Luca Pisaroni as Caliban sounded a little rough to my ear. And as for Domingo — well, how often do you get to hear him anymore? His voice still has a lovely smoothness, and you can see what the big deal used to be. I had never heard Elizabeth DeShong (Hermia) before, but this is a very nice mezzo voice that I would look forward to hearing again.
I think I said before that I will listen to Joyce DiDonato sing just about anything. I stand by that statement. In Sycorax’s first aria, she makes very dramatic and intentionally humorous use of the lowest part of her voice: it’s growly in just the right way. And that wonderful golden sound (it’s very agile, but also has the perfect amount of weight and power) was in evidence through the rest of the performance. Her first aria in Act II, about ‘my strength is returning’ had some lovely phrasing in the middle sections, and her later bit in which Sycorax apologizes to Caliban for tricking him was (I thought) some of the best singing all night – it’s just the combination of the sound and the expressiveness and the music, and I loved it. DiDonato is a very extroverted performer. When she’s on stage, it’s often as if she’s taken the emotion and sort of placed it outside herself in order to do what she wants with it. (I noticed this also on the DVD I saw of her as Elvira in Don Giovanni). This is not a criticism, just an aspect of the way she sings.
Oh, and this is all in English. I found this both interesting and odd. It was so strange to understand automatically what was being sung. I found that I actually prefer opera to be in a language that I don’t comprehend as readily as English, because when it is in English it’s as if my brain is trying to do two opposing things at once: process language, and listen to music. It’s distracting. During the parts where I was most drawn into the music, I stopped hearing the words, e.g. during Prospero’s last aria and Sycorax’s “I’m sorry, my son” aria. For whatever reason, I noticed the language intrusion least with DiDonato.
The singers, to their credit, did not attempt not to sound like Americans. You get the soft ‘r’ and very familiar-sounding vowels. Some numbers, like Helena and Hermia’s ‘men are fickle’ duet sounded almost like an excerpt from PDQ Bach’s Abduction of Figaro. In terms of rhythm, sometimes the English works, as in Hermia’s first aria in Act II. Sometimes it doesn’t as much. There is a sequence in Act I where Miranda falls in love, via magic, with the wrong man, and they use the ‘prendi da questa mano’ duet from Ariodante and here the words seemed to just be the wrong language for the music. I noticed it most in the repetitions of ‘wonderful’ and ‘beautiful’. (In general, I resisted during the performance the impulse to play ‘name that tune’ and I will resist it now.)
So. As I said, this is charming. There are all kinds of neat little visual touches, e.g. the mermaids in Neptune’s palace, the way the production combines eighteenth-century stage tricks and modern lighting and projection, the gestures at native American aesthetics as with Sycorax’s elaborate feather cloak toward the end and Ariel’s last costume, which looks like ‘minor Aztec deity by way of the court of Louis XIV.’ But it doesn’t really add up to anything. This production unintentionally makes a case for how coherent real baroque operas actually are, musically and (sometimes) dramatically — because when the pieces are from all over the place, as in this case, even the best performers can’t quite make it compelling.