When the Metropolitan Opera announced that they were going to produce a Baroque pasticcio (or pastiche), everyone was mystified. While they were quite popular in the 18th century, no one has thought of making a pasticcio opera since then. True, there are lots of turn-of-the-century Broadway shows that were pasticcios. Multiple composers wrote the music and previously written songs were interpolated. But this practice died out in the Gershwin/Kern era. Perhaps Forbidden Broadway would be a modern example, but that is poking fun at the material rather than making something new out of it.
The word means a kind of pasta and meat pie and was applied to an opera that was assembled from parts of other operas, sometimes by the same composer but most often by different composers. New words and completely new plots were given to the music and the result was a new opera made up of familiar music (at least to an 18th century audience). At the time, the voracious appetite for new operas could not be sated by composers quickly enough. Besides, since all the music used was already a hit, opera companies had less chance of a newly composed opera being a failure, which meant a box office disaster. Maybe there is a parallel in Hollywood's endless sequels of successful movies.
But why, pray tell, with thousands of excellent Baroque operas—by composers who are still well known to the general public, assigned to dusty shelves just begging for a new production—create a pasticcio out of their music? It is like an operatic vaudeville act, cobbled together with a creaky plot overlay.
This doesn't mean that The Enchanted Island isn't a major success. It is. And it's absolutely terrific, a guilty pleasure even, and can be seen in local movie theater in the Live at the Met HD series (there's an encore on Feb. 8).
Like an overloaded Christmas tree, the Met hangs as many shiny balls on the production as it could. Big stars (like Plácido Domingo and Joyce DiDonato), a distinguished Baroque music specialist (William Christe) on the podium, and the exceptional production team headed by Phelim McDermott (who stunned us with the production of Phillip Glass' Satyagraha).
The plot is also pasticcio itself in that it combines two Shakespeare plays. It takes its setting and some of its characters from The Tempest and steals a pair of mixed up lovers confused by mistaken identities from A Midsummer Night's Dream. The music and new libretto is the product of Jeremy Sams. His libretto, which is sometimes clever and sometimes touching, also has some silly rhyming couplets. When the sorceress Sycorax (DiDonato, who will make her Dallas Opera debut in 2015 in a world premiere that was announced last week) shows her beastly son, Caliban (Luca Pisaroni) his possible love interest, she says. "Look what your mother has found you. Open you eyes and let the sight astound you." Yikes.
The production is over-the-top wonderful but, historically, Baroque operas were always spectacular. Gods would fly in on chariots and teams of flying angels were commonplace. Here, Neptune (Domingo) is first seen in his underwater throne with mermaids in the flying gear. The chorus put their heads through a painted set of lounging naked attendants to the God, much like a photo-op carnival painting of a muscle dude and his buxom gal at a run-down midway. The elaborate stage frame is enhanced by projections in a Pixar manner. At one point, it turns into a giant gaping mouth with jagged teeth and monstrous bloodshot eyes. Subtler projected touches abound, such as a pair of squirrels (at least I think that is what they were) scampering up a tree. Cutout waves, straight out of an elementary school play, suddenly become a very real and terrifying storm at sea.
The costumes are all quite fantastical. Sycorax starts out looking like one of Macbeth's weird sisters but transforms into magnificent Venus with gold dripping from her hair. Caliban looks like a Kabuki lion. Baroque always stood for excess and the remainder of the costumes are defiantly in that overboard style. The have to be seen to be understood in all their glory. Here, words just don't do it.
Baroque opera also featured that amazing cultural aberration, the castrato—a male singer who was castrated before his voice changed. The result was a woman's voice with a man's power. The very fact of the age of voice changing meant that the child had little input to this barbaric act or much comprehension of its impact on his life. Still, they did it. Nowadays, we have countertenors such as David Daniels, who sings the leading role of Prospero and Anthony Roth Costanzo, who sings the role of the missing lover, Ferdinand. In the case of these two singers, the HD broadcast did them no favors. In the theater, the soprano voices were obviously coming out of these burly men. In the movie house, when the voices come from nowhere, the two men appear as if they are lip-syncing to old Joan Sutherland recordings.
The pairs of lovers are portrayed by a quartet of impressive young singers. Soprano Layla Claire is Helena; Paul Appleby is Demetrius; the dumpling of a mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong is Hermia; and my candidate for a new barihunk, Elliot Madore, is Lysander, in his Met debut. The torn shirt was a nice touch.
The real star here, though, is Danielle de Niese as the spirit, Ariel. She is alternately perky and pouty while she easily navigates all of the virtuoso runs and roulades that Baroque opera demands. She is absolutely wonderful in the role. Lisette Oropesa makes a delightfully dopy Miranda.
Some of the downside of Baroque opera is also in evidence. The procession of aria after aria is tiresome. The whole thing is too long. Da capo arias (where the first part is repeated note for note after a contrasting middle section) are wearing.
On the other hand, the glory of baroque music is also present. Hearing the collection of Vivaldi, Handel, Rameau and many others makes for more variety that in an opera only by one composer. However, this only points out the treasure of Baroque opera that lies fallow, just waiting for more than an occasional aria or chorus to be resurrected.
The Metropolitan Opera's new production of The Enchanted Island has a Dallas connection: Domingo made his North American operatic debut 50 years ago in the Dallas Opera's production of Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor on Nov. 16, 1961.
Dallas Opera Artistic Director Jonathan Pell says "I have his contract, and he was paid a total of $400 for two performances. I keep telling him I'll double his salary when he comes back, but so far, he has declined."
◊ The encore performance of The Enchated Island will be 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 8. To see a list of local theaters showing it, go to our listing, here, which lists them and also links to the remaining operas that will be broadcast in the Live at the Met series.
◊ Here's a scene from The Enchanted Island: