Baroque Confection at the Cinema

After the disaster that was Castor & Pollux, I was very keen to see The Enchanted Island, an exquisite confection of Baroque greatest hits set to a new libretto by Jeremy Sams, who knows a thing or two about translation and adaptation.

Sadly I can’t afford a transatlantic trip to the Met to see this in the flesh, but the HD live relay at the Curzon provided an acceptable alternative.  Musically it is not a patch  on hearing it in the same physical space as the singers and musicians, but in terms of the visuals it is magnificent.

Sams has come up with a storyline loosely based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest with the lovers from Midsummer Night’s Dream thrown in to complicate the plot and allow a great deal more humour than The Tempest would normally warrant (“Wrong Ship!” as Ariel cries in outrage at the failure of the spell).  This regurgitating of plot and music is entirely appropriate; The Tempest is the only storyline Shakespeare didn’t borrow from somewhere else, and Handel (and I’ve no doubt many others) reused their best tunes… something that was easy to do before the advent of recorded music. Scherza infida (Ariodante and Xerxes) pops up here as Chaos, Confusion… and Zadok the Priest magnificently heralds the arrival of a grumpy put-about Poseidon.

I wish I could have been there at the Met, because this production is close on perfection, and it would have been lovely to experience it in the flesh… and we then wouldn’t have had the occasional disjoint in the sound or the complete failure of the transmission in Ferdinand’s big aria.

With the entire Baroque repertoire to choose from, Handel, Rameau and Vivaldi get top billing, so the music was never going to disappoint, and apparently the principals were involved in choosing what they got to sing, which surely had a happy impact on the commitment of all concerned.  And with Shakespeare’s tried and tested characters any deviation from the plot wasn’t likely to cause too much disruption.

The Met pulls out all the stops, with a witty and complex set (The ships and Poseidon’s court particularly charming,) clever use of digital projection, (the welcome balloons for the supposed Ferdinand, and their disappearance, as he is revealed to be Demetrius, the last few bouncing disconsolately off the top of the arch, and the arch itself later turning into the mouth of hell, complete with eyes and teeth) glorious costumes: Ariel (bound and unbound) and Sycorax, undergoing a singing-ringing tree transformation with each entrance, gradually younger, more beautiful and yet more gorgeously caparisoned,(and with smarter feathers) are, in particular, worthy of note. (See? I’m starting to write in Rococo curlicues.  It seems only fair to match their commitment to the genre).

Add to this that the Met has thrown in every conceit and bit of stage wizardry available to the Baroque era –  wave machines and flying mermaids and actual shipwrecks; and  a truly effective ballet interlude; something modern productions of Baroque opera sometimes struggle with (hang your head Barrie Kosky).  I feel as though the production team Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch  sat down and said, right, let’s take every cliché and well-worn device that was ever used in a baroque opera and make it shiny, new, witty and moving.  And they did; camp it may be (joyfully so), but it never falls into parody.

Vocally magnificent, the principals are well-chosen and obviously having the time of their lives.  Joyce DiDonato‘s aria Maybe soon, Maybe now is stunning. Danielle de Niese is a sparky witty Ariel and  David Daniels a grave Prospero. Plácido Domingo as Neptune makes it look easy to out-sing the chorus (which is perhaps too big, I don’t really expect to be recoiling from a wall of sound in a Baroque venture) at the same time giving a persuasive performance as a sulky, world-weary God who cannot understand why the Mortals won’t play nicely and stop messing up his oceans.

Every principal throws themselves into their part, (the fact that in most cases the parts were tailored to them giving an additional zest) and good use is made of those staples of the Baroque, breeches parts (Ariel) and counter tenors (Prospero and Ferdinand Anthony Roth Costanzo who I would describe as an alto really – I want to hear more from him).

The libretto is funny, touching, over the top, dramatic.  Every character is given an opportunity to shine.

While Ariel’s hopes for freedom, Prospero’s hopes for reconciliation, and Sycorax’s hopes for revenge drive the story on, It is Luca Pisaroni‘s Caliban who is the heart of this production, he is the character who pulls the elements from The Dream and The Tempest and the new storyline of Sycorax’s revenge, together.

Whilst Pisaroni’s voice, in such a magnificent cast, is not the first thing I would comment on, his acting most definitely is. He is given plenty to do, Caliban’s anger, impotence, hope and despair are all expressed from inside major makeup and a prosthetic body suit and chains (Caliban is conceived as one of those creatures that Saruman conjures up in the film of Lord of the Rings, a cross between an Orc and a Troll); at the point when he is felled by lost love and struck speechless by betrayal, this is expressed entirely with laboured breathing (visible through the body suit) and a turn of the head, you almost see his heart break – utterly moving; people all around me were wiping away tears.

Like the island, I was enchanted.

seventeen stars.

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