Met’s strong cast and magical staging win out over PC cliches in “Enchanted Island”
The idea of freedom sets in motion The Enchanted Island, a Baroque pastiche that received its world premiere at the Metropolitan Opera on Saturday night. When the curtain rises, the sprite Ariel is in thrall to the magus Prospero, who promises Ariel his freedom if he will contrive a shipwreck that will bring Prospero’s daughter Miranda the husband that her father has chosen for her.
At the same time, that snippet of the plot shows just how vexed notions of freedom are in The Enchanted Island. Like colonialist readings of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, one of the sources for Jeremy Sams’ libretto, The Enchanted Island depicts Prospero as an arrogant European interloper in a foreign culture, an autocrat who defines “freedom” as exploiting the lives and powers of others for his own ends. And while The Enchanted Island itself epitomizes freedom—its glorious, motley score, assembled by Sams and musical advisor Ellen Rosand, dealing a welcome blow to Romantic fixations with “originality” and “genius”—its musical excellence and splendid stagecraft are undermined by a silly, clichéd libretto.
Spoken by Shakespeare’s Miranda, “O brave new world” glimmers with irony as she hails visitors from the old world. In Sams’ libretto, it is a catchphrase bandied about for cheap laughs. In Mozart’s Così fan tutte, a model for the inconstant castaways in The Enchanted Island, mutability springs largely unbidden from the dark mystery that is the human heart. The lovers in The Enchanted Island, instead, are puppets manipulated by magic spells and the mimed pulling of strings, and the ladies, predictably, get their turnabout-is-fair-play moment, singing “Men are fickle.”
The cosmic, providential forces at play in The Tempest are in The Enchanted Island reduced to mere trickery. Both Prospero and hoary Neptune are more blustery parents (“Do as I tell you!”) than embodiments of order and authority. And when Prospero at opera’s end surrenders his grimoire to the witch Sycorax, the gesture seems pointless, since he has acknowledged his supposed magic as “interference” and shown himself to be an impotent potentate, helpless without the labors of the native Ariel.
That said, its befuddled book aside, The Enchanted Island is an entertaining show. The unit set, by Julian Crouch, shows columns and capitals cluttered with books and intertwined with writhing vegetation—Inigo Jones meets The Lord of the Rings. Within this basic framework, lighting designer Brian MacDevitt and 59 Productions, the animation and projection team, conjure up marvels: glittery sprinkles of magic, ripples and heat and iridescent colors seemingly wrought by the characters’ song and, for Neptune’s manifestation, a dizzying journey through the deep replete with shimmering schools of fish.
The staging by Phelim McDermott has its low points (party streamers and balloons for Ariel’s failed abduction of Ferdinand, Busby Berkeley-style mermaids) and also great beauties: the hushed ending of Act I, when Prospero’s would-be magic staff glimmers weakly, a tiny light swallowed in the darkness.
While Prospero’s wizardry may be spent, the cast members of The Enchanted Island work their own powerful magic. As the witch Sycorax, absent in The Tempest but very much to the fore in this retelling of its tale, Joyce DiDonato begins her first aria Maybe soon, maybe now (its music drawn from Handel’s Teseo) with a thrilling messa di voce, makes the vowel in “soon” sound with the direst, most roiling colors, and seems to start her cadenza singing in the bass register. She transforms trills into fiery brands of rage and yet, as she cradles her heartbroken son Caliban, summons her customary clear-as-sunlight tones. The unsparing ferocity with which DiDonato digs into her music and probes beauties both ravishing and terrible is Callas-like — a comparison invoked often and too lightly but here one richly deserved.
As Neptune, Plácido Domingo faces the cringeworthy task of delivering a politically correct harangue (“You have stolen the land”) to Prospero at opera’s end. No matter: in the restricted range in which he now sings, his voice retains its inimitable strength and burnished beauty. And who else singing today could plausibly impersonate a god?
Time has begun to hollow and fray David Daniel’s once opaline timbre, but his artistry and musicianship are sterling. He is at his best in Prospero’s introspective musings (Chaos, confusion) at the end of Act I and in his plea to Sycorax for forgiveness, both drawn from Handel.
As Ariel, Danielle de Niese is a veritable whirlwind of charm and impertinence, bringing comic fizz to every scene in which she appears. She sings two of the show’s most wickedly demanding arias—I can conjure you fire and Can you feel the heavens are reeling (to music by Handel and Vivaldi, respectively)—with triumphant aplomb and a sometimes shrill soubrette voice.
Luca Pisaroni’s dark, handsome sound and dramatic command make up for those rare moments in the lowest reaches of Caliban’s music where his voice weakens. Lisette Oropesa’s pliant, luminous tone makes much of Miranda’s music; she deserves better direction than she receives in this production, in which Miranda is little more than a daffy marionette. An exquisite use of light and shade, ease in treacherous intervals, and a bright, almost girlish sound makes the countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo’s one aria (Ferdinand’s Gliding onwards) a highlight of the evening.
Layla Claire (Helena) has a voice of liquid and lambent beauty that she puts to soulful use, most memorably in Why am I living? The tenor Paul Appleby (Demetrius), the baritone Elliot Madore (Lysander), and the mezzo Elizabeth DeShong (Hermia) sing well and hold their own among the vocal giants in the cast, as do the young masque singers (Ashley Emerson, Monica Yunus, Philippe Castagner, and Tyler Simpson).
All of the cast members enunciate clearly thanks to English coach Erie Mills and are splendidly clothed by costume designer Kevin Pollard. The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra under William Christie do themselves glory with alert, graceful playing throughout, best in the restless accompaniment to Miranda’s first aria and the raunchy, wildly scored dance music by Rameau and Jean-Féry Rebel that underpins Graciela Daniele’s witty choreography.
Drown the book (to paraphrase Prospero), but do make a journey to see and hear the wonders of singing and stagecraft in The Enchanted Island.
The Enchanted Island runs through January 30, and will be shown at movie theaters as part of the Live in HD series on January 21, with encore showings in the United States (February 8) and Canada (March 3 and 26). metoperafamily.org; 212-362-6000.