A New Year’s Eve Premiere at the Metropolitan Opera: “The Enchanted Island”

When the season brochure for the Met came out last spring, I zeroed in on "The Enchanted Island" because Anthony Roth Costanzo, a brilliant young countertenor whose work thrills me, was billed as one of the performers.  As soon as tickets became available for a "do your own" subscription, this was on my list.  Although as a matter of principle I have some objections about what the Met did here, on its own terms I have to say that it was a brilliant production, all the featured singers were superb, Costanzo was outstanding in what turned out to be a short featured role, and I'm glad I went to hear it.

On the other hand, I do have some objections.  The Met does not commission many operas, and doesn't present many contemporary operas that were commissioned and premiered by others.  And they don't present very many Baroque operas, either.  How often has anybody heard Vivaldi, or Rameau, or Monteverdi or Hasse, played at the Met?  Even Handel only gets an occasional go, such as this year's presentation of Rodelinda.  There is an enormous catalogue of Baroque operas that have never played at the Met.  But Met Director Peter Gelb decided instead to commission a Baroque opera by hiring a librettist to write one and then piece together a "pastiche" of recitatives and arias from existing Baroque operas to make a "new" old work.  One could hear some of Handel's greatest hits, such as the coronation anthem Zadok the Priest fitted out with new words, as part of the evening.  Then to lavish upon it a splendid production with an extraordinary (and undoubtedly expensive) large cast.  Placido Domingo was certainly luxury casting in the supporting role of Neptune, for example, and bringing in William Christie to conduct put the "seal of approval" on the entire project, as he is undoubtedly one of the leading conductors of Baroque opera in the world.

So – we got a work that is a mash-up between Shakespeare's "The Tempest" and "A Midsummer Night's Dream," ingenious projections on a splendid unit set, stirring choral numbers, great music that is out of copyright and thus royalty-free, and a sure-fire hit with audiences, as I'm sure it will be for the balance of the run.  I had a great time….

And yet, I think all the money and effort might have been better spent on a new production of one of the myriad of recently-composed operas that have not yet been performed at the Met, or even better on commissioning an opera from a leading composer in the field.  I know they have some commissions lined up for future seasons – and I'm eagerly anticipating getting to attend a Nico Muhly opera at the Met – but there are operas by Britten we never hear, and Eotvos's Angels in America, and plenty of other worthy recently-composed pieces by American composers.  Part of refreshing the repertory involves reviving standard repertory operas in new productions, but part of it has to be introducing new operas.  Manufacturing a new Baroque opera is fun, but I question the priorities, especially at a time of fiscal stringency.

That aside, I thought the cast and production crew and conductor and chorus did a spectacular job with this.  David Daniels as Prospero, Danielle di Niese as Ariel, Joyce Di Donato as Sycorax, Luca Pisaroni as Caliban, Lisette Oropesa as Miranda, Layla Claire as Helena, Elizabeth DeShong as Hermia, Paul Appleby as Demetrius, Elliot Madore (Met debut) as Lysander, Domingo as Neptune, Costanzo as Ferdinand, and an ensemble of Ashley Emerson, Monica Yunus, Philippe Castagner, and Tyler Simpson as a vocal quartet in one scene, were all superb.  What was most striking to me, actually, was that with all this young talent up on the stage (and many of the cast were quite young), it was the very senior Domingo who had the real big-league, Met-filling voice among the crew.  Christie's energetic leadership kept the entire thing moving well.

One miscalculation, I think, was as to the length of the thing.  It was announced in the program as running from 6:30 to 9:45, but actually concluded at about 10:10.  According to the note by Jeremy Sams, the librettist who put the entire thing together at Gelb's instigation, at the time he was writing his Program Note final decisions had not been made about what pieces were in and what pieces were out, so that the published ending time was an estimate for an opera whose contents were not yet final.  In the event, they ended up leaving in more than they had been planning, and although the evening didn't drag, I thought some pruning could be in order.  The ballet was fun but not really necessary for the plot; it seemed to be included in order to introduce some terrific ballet music by Rameau, and to honor the tradition of having a ballet sequence in a Baroque opera, but it could have been dispensed with, or perhaps some of the many da capo arias could have been shortened a bit.  If the Met decides to keep this work in its repertory after this year — and the investment in sets, projections and costumes suggests they should in order to realize a good return for a work that will probably prove popular, I would suggest some tightening for the next round.

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