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New York

 

Martin Bernheimer

 

In the good old days-also the not-so-good old days-the metropolitan opera rang out the old year with the would-be frivolity of Johann Strauss's Die Fledermaus. But Peter Gelb, the über-impresario in residence, has developed other repertory ideas, and none more ambitious than The Enchanted Island. Introduced amid citywide brouhaha and gala glitz, the company called its New Year's Eve innovation a pasticcio. Others might call it a messy hodgepodge, maybe even a silly, precious, pretentious bore. The reconstituted Baroque fantasy certainly was given a clever production and a mostly strong cast. A period-performance expert manned the podium. Still, success turned out to be skimpy, or so it seemed to at least one reluctant iconoclast.

 

The pasticcio was a popular diversion in the 18th century, a stage piece recycling music from existing works by various composers. Audiences apparently liked to hear familiar tunes in unfamiliar contexts, with new words added along with new narrative signals. The Met mishmash, ambitiously devised by Jeremy Sams and broadly directed by Phelim McDermott, juggles Shakespeare's Tempest and Midsummer Night's Dream. It embellishes both plots and pauses for a stultifying ballet by Graciela Daniele, complete with a cygnet-spoof cliché.

 

Sams's chatty libretto imposes fussy, often incomprehensible English phrases on melodies that stubbornly resist the chosen stresses and accents. The hand-me-down score, which bumbles and doodles in numerous directions without defining dramatic impetus, raids operas, cantatas and oratorios by eight innocent composers, most notably Handel, Vivaldi, Rameau and Purcell. It may be significant that the Met does not identify the specific sources in its voluminous programme magazine. Details are offered only on the company website. Apparently no one in the house is supposed to care about what music comes from where.

 

After the overture to Handel's Alcina, the curtain rises on what looks like a charming, razzle-dazzly variation on an antique toy theatre. Julian Crouch, the ingenious designer, depicts the bookish domain of Prospero at stage right, counterbalanced by Sycorax's gnarled and dismal dwelling at stage left. An ornate circular frame in the middle serves as a stage within this stage, showcasing a series of aquatic tableaux quasi-vivants plus fanciful video projections and cartoon animations created by the 59 Productions collective. If only The Enchanted Island sounded as inventive, as witty and as compelling as it looked.

 

The conductor, William Christie, worked hard, sometimes with success, to sustain grace (repetitive grace) and a sense of immediacy in a house that is way too big for so fragile a challenge. The Met, after all, accommodates 4,000. The singers did what they could, for better or worse. Better: Joyce DiDonato cackled, curled and soared with virtuosic flair in the bitchy-witchy spasms of Sycorax. Luca Pisaroni exuded dark-edged pathos as Caliban. In countertenor territory, David Daniels's slightly rusty Prospero contrasted nicely with Anthony Roth Costanzo's bright and sweet Ferdinand. Lisette Oropesa (Miranda) and Layla Claire (Helena) floated innocently through their confused-soprano platitudes, and Elizabeth DeShong made Hermia strikingly plush and spunky. Worse: in his brief star turn, Plácido Domingo imposed verismo intensity on Neptune while doddering dutifully amid flying mermaids. Danielle de Niese strutted and simpered with unbearable cutesiness as a painfully shrill Ariel.

Gelb justified the project provocatively in a preview published in the ever supportive New York Times. ‘I'm always interested in trying to stretch the repertory in ways that can be appealing both for the artists and the public,' he declared. ‘I wanted to play the Baroque card, but with a faster dramatic rhythm tailored to modern attention spans.' Given the unenchanted evening that followed, this may have been wishful stretching, also wishful card-playing. The festivities began, not incidentally, at 6.30pm. They ended, many hours and several lives later, at 10.

Opera Awards in association with OPERA Magazine
Cabbells 2012 B & C