Saturday, January 21, 2012

How Sycorax got her groove back; a Review of The Enchanted Island Live in HD

Photo: Nick Heavican/Met Opera

"Then what I desire should be simple," sang countertenor David Daniels as Prospero, "A storm!"

"What kind?" replied Ariel, "Snow? Sand? Hail?"

It was a "simple" storm at sea that Prospero requested during the opening scene of The Enchanted Island transmitted Live in HD from the Met. But Ariel saved her snowstorm for the Northeast, with a timing that made it a challenge for many of us to get to the cinema to watch this newly created Baroque opera, assembled from forgotten gems of operas few of us will ever hear live in their original settings.

The character of Ariel, performed by Danielle de Niese, was the central thread that focused the first act, and de Niese impressed with chiseled passagi matched with an ability to guide a caffeinated character through swiftly defined emotional shifts.

Joyce DiDonato brought the character of Sycorax through an arc that began somewhat like the Act I Kundry; she was so connected to nature that she wore roots. Gradually her transformation led to a final appearance that glittered. DiDonato shaped these shifts through her posture and movements, but also by allowing brighter vocal resonances to unfold as her character changed.

Luca Pisaroni as Caliban looked like most members of the audience in a concert by the rock band Kiss. (He also got to "Rock and Roll all Nite and Party Every Day" during the Masque). His skill became making us feel for Caliban when the character hit bottom. Pisaroni was believable. We did care.

The libretto by Jeremy Sams was witty and came across in English without sounding stilted or foreign. Sams also chose most of the music, along with some help from conductor William Christie with occasional suggestions from other members of the cast. Considering that there were 44 numbered arias on the Met website listing the repertoire for this opera, the succession was often effective.

One weakness in the ordering was that it took too long to get away from G minor at the opening of the first scene. We met both Prospero and Ariel in this key, and when DiDonato also sang her first aria in G minor the key no longer seemed fresh. Too bad, because the aria "Maybe soon, maybe now," with its oboe echos was the perfect way, and the perfect key, to introduce us to Sycorax.

The production was directed and designed by Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch (who are familiar from their work on Satyagraha this season). Their concept was to conceive of the island using a visual metaphor of a brain. The left hemisphere was dominated by Prospero and his books. Even spells were cast using recipes. The right hemisphere was the world of Sycorax. Thinking through the blocking in this metaphor allowed us to imagine Neptune as being a deeply seated part of the unconscious mind. I will need help from friendly Jungians to sort out the details.

The Baroque was never meant for houses as big as the Met. Until now. After Rodelinda and The Enchanted Island...bring on the Baroque.

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