In opera, “new” usually means one of two things. There’s the truly new (contemporary works by living composers, never before seen or heard but often based on a familiar story) and the semi-new (a new production of a classic work).
But in the Baroque era (1600 to 1750), new could be a pastiche, an opera made up of preexisting musical bits. Composers handpicked scenes and arias from their works or those of others, treating audiences to evenings of high entertainment.
Though Baroque opera (never known for brevity or simplicity—an evening could last five hours) is experiencing somewhat of a revival, a pastiche is rarer, and neither was likely to occupy the Metropolitan Opera’s stage—one much more grandiose than the intimate spaces suited to intricate Baroque scores. But the Met is more enterprising these days thanks to Peter Gelb, its general manager, and the house will debut The Enchanted Island, a Baroque pastiche, this New Year’s Eve. Like the pastiches of old, it is fashioned from parts ancient (the music of Vivaldi, Handel and Rameau; a Shakespearean tale) and modern (new words and a new version of that story).
The opera’s evolution began in 2008, when Gelb—who’s transformed the Met to a more populist place, with productions like John Adams’s Nixon in China and Philip Glass’s Satyagraha—imagined “an all-star Baroque evening,” using pastiche as a starting point but bringing the genre into a contemporary context. He roped in early-music specialist William Christie, who will conduct the opera, and Jeremy Sams, a polymath British director and librettist whose work has ranged from Broadway (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang) to the English National Opera (Wagner’s Ring cycle). “Most Baroque operas are long and massively complicated,” Sams says. “Peter wanted to find the hidden gems. My job was to make a jewel box for the jewels.” Being British, he went straight to Shakespeare and quickly settled on The Tempest.
“But,” he says, “it doesn’t have enough sex or a love interest. Plus, Baroque opera is an aria-making machine, and you need a plot that lends itself to long solos.” So he conceived a Shakespeare mash-up, in which the lovers from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, en route to their honeymoon, become shipwrecked on Prospero’s island—with The Tempest’s characters. Sams created a new role, Neptune, the stern sea god, to showcase legendary Spanish tenor Plàcido Domingo, as well as Sycorax, the sorceress mother of the slave Caliban who, only imagined in The Tempest, is played by feisty American mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato. The English libretto is tautly structured in two acts, Sams says, “a bit more like a Broadway musical—every piece of music is essential. It’s music that says ‘Listen to this!’”
Creating the enchanted island itself fell to two of the most expansive minds in opera today: director Phelim McDermott and designer Julian Crouch, of the British theater company Improbable, responsible for the Met’s transportive Satyagraha in 2008 (which will be revived this season). “The way the music is structured cyclically, it was a challenge, staging-wise,” McDermott says. “How do you make the acting compelling?” The repetitive nature of Baroque arias—which may only consist of four sentences but last as long as 12 minutes—forced DiDonato to plumb Sycorax’s psychological depths. “It’s very much how the human brain works; we repeat the same line over and over with different inflections, trying to find insight,” she says. “As a performer, you have to be very clear on the inner journey the character is making.”
While film projection on the stage’s back wall places the production firmly in the present, Crouch and McDermott still wanted to embrace the tropes of traditional theater in the island’s design. “Roots of theater design come from the Baroque period, and I find a lot of pleasure in those old-fashioned techniques: the flat scenery, the forced perspective,” Crouch says. “But I also wanted to push it further.”
Inspired by tales of exploration and the look of ancient sites like Angkor Wat, Crouch created a world where Prospero’s scientific mind and Sycorax’s mystical one meld. The fantastical creatures inhabiting the island are takeoffs on the drawings of colonizing explorers, who, Crouch says, “would see a rhinoceros, but by the time they drew it and brought it home, it looked more like a unicorn.”
At a recent tech rehearsal, their vision seemed fully realized. A classic proscenium arch painted as Prospero’s library and laboratory created a portal within which the action of the opera took place, somehow making the Met’s expansive stage seem intimate. Projection of the crashing ocean blended seamlessly with flat, cutout waves moved by stagehands. The effect was both surreal and delightfully homemade, a pop-up storybook come to life. “The projection brings a magical element, but it doesn’t turn its back on the old-style theater magic,” McDermott says. “It’s the newest old opera you’ll come across.”
The Enchanted Island Details
Premières December 31 and runs through January 30, 2012.
At the Metropolitan Opera, Lincoln Center, New York.
For tickets, go to metoperafamily.org.
Joyce Didonato, Sycorax. The mezzo-soprano excels in the Baroque repertoire.
David Daniels, Prospero. The countertenor was recently seen in the Met’s Orfeo ed Euridice.
Placido Domingo, Neptune. Sams wrote the libretto with the Spanish tenor in mind.
Danielle de Niese, Ariel. The sultry Sri Lankan–Dutch lyric soprano from L.A. is an emerging Baroque specialist.