Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Enchanted Island - The Met live at the Jerusalem Cinematheque

Entering the cinema, the screen shows people taking their seats `in an opulent opera hall, talking animatedly to each other to the background of an orchestra tuning up. The large screen immediately gives the audience a sense of involvement. We were about to enjoy one of the events of an exciting new series for opera lovers - the showing of live performances from The Metropolitan Opera at the Jerusalem Cinematheque. On January 21st 2012, “The Enchanted Island”, attracting a large audience, showed simultaneously in two of the cinemas of the complex. Not your usual contemporary opera fare, “The Enchanted Island” is a mix of pieces from Baroque works of Händel, Vivaldi, Rameau and others, with a storyline based on Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” (itself an amalgamation of works) and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. Most sung texts had been rewritten and were performed in user-friendly English. Devised and written by Jeremy Sams, produced by Phelim McDermott and conducted by William Christie (founder of “Les Arts Florissants”), the production was unique in that the singers themselves had some say in the content of this pastiche opera, the costumes, etc. Referred to as “a work in process”, changes will be in order as the production proceeds. This kind of production may be rare today but it is certainly in keeping with the Baroque concept.

The remote island in question is the setting for sorcery, for misused magic potions, confusion, mistaken identities, love, control and manipulation, where, of course most of the problems manage to get ironed out by the end of the opera. Playing Prospero, the exiled Duke of Milan, we heard countertenor David Daniels. Charismatic and convincing, Daniels has natural and impressive stage presence, presenting much of the dramatic plot with depth, his rich and stable vocal timbre embracing each musical gesture. Australian-born soprano Danielle de Niese, well cast as Ariel, the servant sprite – a combination of both Puck and Tinkerbell - who manages to create havoc from his muddled use of magic, was charming and vivacious in her alacrity, her voice strong and agile, her physical movements light, easeful and, indeed, spritely.

Mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato (Sycorax), interviewed by dramatic soprano Deborah Voigt who was hosting this live broadcast, referred to the evening’s program as "a musical world with a lot of freedom". Her all-out wicked portrayal of the mischief-making sorceress was supported by her brilliant treatment of the vocally challenging passages. As Caliban’s mother, she changed her "tone" to display empathy and compassion in face of her son’s suffering. Caliban was played by young Venezuelan-born bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni. This was his first English language role. Depicting a mix of beast and man (he needs 45 minutes to don this costume and make-up, his dashing good looks totally disguised!) his posture, gestures and singing were wholly in character with the unfortunate Caliban. His singing is fresh, flexible and exciting; no less impressive was his deep study of the many sides to Caliban’s character – a wild, borderline-type personality with a fervent wish to be accepted and to find love, showing his vulnerability, his suffering and eventual crushing disappointment at being different and alone. An artist of facial expressions, his eyes telling all, Pisaroni’s performance punctuated the humorous and fantastical opera plot to present some sobering home truths about the human soul and society.

Plácido Domingo’s depiction of Neptune, and his message of mercy and love, was noble and commanding both musically and visually; his voice remains full and compelling, as is his stage presence. Domingo spoke of having sung much Baroque opera in his earlier years and was delighted to be singing nusic of the genre one more. There is no room here to discuss all the singers. However, I wish to mention Anthony Roth Constanzo (Ferdinand), a young countertenor with a mellifluous, stable voice, understanding of Baroque performance and great musicality, who gave a superb performance.

William Christie’s musical direction produced the fine balance, nuance and the sparkle of Baroque instrumentation. “The Enchanted Island” was also a feast for the eyes: in a combination of painted Baroque scenery, the wonders to be conjured up by modern electronics and daring Baroque-style staging techniques (flying mermaids, etc.), the audience feasted its eyes on mysterious forest sets, grey island scenes, sets of calm, idyllic, azure seas and storms at sea. Costumes (Kevin Pollard) and make-up were given no less thought: the courtly clothes of the two couples who had survived the storm at sea were in delightful, shredded disarray. The production was altogether parceled up in humor: French court dances were danced by strange creatures in grotesque steps to the leering eyes of poor Caliban. Finally, with magic spells put right, the honeymooners repaired to their original state, Ferdinand grants pardon, Neptune puts Prospero in his place, and Prospero now begs forgiveness; rejoicing can now begin to see in a new day of joy, peace and love. The cinema lights come on to call us back to reality. The Metropolitan Opera’s production of “The Enchanted Island” was opera at its finest.

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