On Wednesday, July 23 at 7:00 p.m., the Pollak Theatre at Monmouth University will host a rebroadcast of The Met: Live in HD production of “The Enchanted Island.” And it’s got pretty much everything you could want in an opera: some of the world’s best singers, glorious music of the Baroque masters, and not one but TWO Shakespeare stories. This is an encore presentation of the original Live in HD transmission from January 21, 2012.
OK, stay with me now: “The Enchanted Island” is a new opera, but the music is more than 250 years old.
How is that possible, you ask? Well, it’s what we call a pasticcio, or a pastiche, which was really common in the 18th century opera world, but has never been attempted by modern opera companies. Creator Jeremy Sams took some of the greatest hits from various Baroque composers, such as George Frideric Handel, Antonio Vivaldi, and Jean-Philippe Rameau, and wove them together into a plot combining Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “The Tempest.”
So this is an opera mash-up to end all mash-ups. Or if you’re a musical theater fan, think of it as a kind of classical jukebox musical.
I remember when this work premiered on December 31, 2011. In the lead-up, everyone seemed to wonder whether this thing could be pulled off. But we’re talking the Met here, which is not known for doing things in half-measures (Exhibit A: the entire concept and execution of The Met: Live in HD which single-handedly changed the opera landscape.) They brought in William Christie, the premier Baroque music specialist, to be the music director and conductor, as well as engaging Baroque music historians.
And they assembled an all-star cast of opera singers, including: Plácido Domingo (yes, one of the Three Tenors), Joyce DiDonato (who takes “the show must go on” to a whole ‘nother level), the gorgeous Danielle de Niese and David Daniels (who brought back the popularity of the counter-tenor practically single-handedly). Usually in opera, singers stick to certain eras of music. You have your Mozart specialists, your Wagnarian sopranos, etc. But that’s changing a little bit now and here the cast is made up of singers who typically work in a variety of genres.
Handel alone wrote 43 operas in his lifetime and Jeremy Sams listened to every single one of them in creating this work. In the Met’s program notes, prior to its premiere, he said:
“’The Enchanted Island’ is my equivalent of sitting down my friends in my front room, getting out my CD collection, and saying, ‘Listen to this—this is fantastic!’ I’m really hoping this piece will turn people onto this music the way it turned me onto this music. That’s the one thing I hope will communicate itself to an audience: a sense of discovery—of people coming to an island, of an audience coming to a theater, of a writer coming to a whole century of music. That idea of coming to something you thought you knew and discovering that you didn’t.”
What I didn’t realize is that Peter Gelb, the head of the Met, is the one who originally had the idea for this production: he wanted to deliver the fantastic music of the Baroque in a modern way. Ever been to a Baroque opera? I have. While the music is wonderful, it’s sometimes hard for a modern audience to appreciate the whole thing. Arias often get repeated three times in a row, with the singer adding Baroque ornamental notes in the repeats. Run times often go over four hours. But Gelb wanted to capitalize on the growing popularity of Baroque music today, while taking into account the modern audiences’ attention span.
On top of that, I think he was really interested in doing something no modern opera company seems to have done before in bringing back the pastiche model. Baroque opera can be hard to pull off in the large expanse of the Metropolitan Opera House – operas of that era were performed in much more intimate spaces. But the grand theatricality of the pastiche helps bridge the gap here.
Doing a pastiche was a daring choice for the Met, since the opera world has been moving toward truly authentic performances of Baroque works – this is really the opposite. But perhaps that mold-breaking quality is why this piece was so successful.
The creator of “The Enchanted Island,” Jeremy Sams, is a British theater artist, making his Met debut with this production (no pressure there!). He is a noted stage director, writer translator, composer and lyricist. Sams originally was drawn to doing a version of “The Tempest,” but for him, the problem was that there is really not much love interest there and Baroque music is very passionate. But “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is full of love stories, so Sams decided to combine the two plots:
Exiled to a remote island, “The Tempest”’s Prospero seeks to reconcile with his family and ensure his daughter Miranda’s future through her marriage to Prince Ferdinand. He promises to grant his sprite servant Ariel his freedom if he can bring Ferdinand’s ship to the island. But instead, Ariel shipwrecks the four honeymooning lovers from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” by mistake, mismatching them romantically with Miranda and Caliban, Prospero’s slave. Meanwhile, Caliban schemes with his mother, the disgraced sorceress Sycorax, to regain control of the island, which Prospero seized from her years before. In the end, it is left to the sea god Neptune to intervene and bring Ferdinand’s ship to the island, where the young prince delivers the king’s pardon to Prospero and falls in love with Miranda on first sight. Prospero must then seek forgiveness from Sycorax so that harmony may reign and all may celebrate a new time of peace and joy.
Sycorax? You’re right in not remembering that character from your English Lit classes. She isn’t in the original Shakespeare play, but Sams took the character (and his opera’s title) from a Baroque opera composed by Henry Purcell called “The Tempest, or The Enchanted Island.” Believe me, with Joyce DiDonato in the role, you’ll be glad Sams added her!
The character of Prospero is sung by David Daniels, a countertenor. That’s the highest male voice type, pretty much equivalent to the female mezzo-soprano range – think of it like a really powerful, strong falsetto. It’s most commonly found in the Baroque repertoire, when castrati were all the rage. For obvious reasons, the castrato has fallen out of favor, but the countertenor more than fills that niche. And you don’t just get one countertenor in “The Enchanted Island” – you get two! (The dynamic Anthony Roth Costanzo, as Ferdinand, is the other.)
And here’s an interesting tidbit: when “The Enchanted Island” debuted, it marked Plácido Domingo’s 136th role AND it was the first time he played a god role. (Though many fans would say that he’s an opera god himself.)
This is a Met HD transmission, so you’re not going to see live singers on the stage in front of you. But don’t feel like you’re getting the short end of the stick. To get that close to the singers in the actual Met Opera House, you’d have to practice your singing for years and put on a costume. The transmissions are also hosted by a major opera star, who gives you a look backstage before the opera and during intermission. The host for “Enchanted Island” is Debbie Voigt.
Given the Met’s current, well-publicized issues, this is a nice opera oasis – for the devotee and newcomer alike.
The Met: Live in HD Encore performance of “The Enchanted Island” takes place on Wednesday, July 23 at 7:00 pm. at Monmouth University’s Pollack Theatre; 400 Cedar Avenue in West Long Branch, NJ 07740. Tickets are $18 for adults, $10 for children and $5 for Monmouth University students. To purchase, call 732-263-6889. The approximate run time is 3 hours. For more information, visit www.monmouth.edu/arts.
Conductor: William Christie; Devised and Written by Jeremy Sams; Live in HD Host: Deborah Voigt. Cast: Danielle de Niese (Ariel), Lisette Oropesa (Miranda), Joyce DiDonato (Sycorax), David Daniels (Prospero), Anthony Roth Costanzo (Ferdinand), Plácido Domingo (Neptune) and Luca Pisaroni (Caliban).
And there are more Met Opera Summer Encores coming up. Check out https://www.monmouth.edu/Events/ for more details.