Upon Watching The Enchanted Island

I hear there's not much better in America for opera than the Met. For Opera History class Jane is having us get as close to that action as possible by watching recorded performances of the Met in HD at participating movie theaters. It's the way to go if you want good sound and seats that aren't in the NN/Balcony 4 category. We have three of them to watch for the class this quarter, and I thought I'd bring Jessica to the first one. It's relatively short, in English, and called The Enchanted Island.

The pasticcio is a Baroque operatic genre which does just what its name applies: a veritable hodge-podge of arias by one or multiple composers strung together with recitative that outlines some sort of plot. Really the plot is of very little consequence. It's all about the arias. And by arias I mean "da Capo arias." In The Enchanted Island, we have arias from Handel, Vivaldi, Rameau, et al., pasted onto a mismatched mixture of Shakespeare's The Tempest and Midsummer's Night's Dream. Scenery! Magic! Countertenors! Sinking Ships! Mermaids! The picture really tells it all...

(I must preface this review by the disclaimer that I am not a natural-born lover of opera. I think it's mainly a stylistic thing (and he claims to love Chopin?!?!); I appreciate musicals, theater, of course music both solo and choral, visual splendor, literature. But I've never been able to sink my teeth into the style of singing that dominates this opera seria genre of music. Is it too extroverted? I don't know. Now that you know I'm a complete neophyte, who nevertheless has the patience and desire to learn and appreciate foreign things, we may continue.)

Countertenors: Huh?!?! You must wrestle with this one. The chap on the right of the picture, David Daniels, the lion-maned Prospero, sang in a ringing falsetto the whole three hours. The sound is jarring when coupled with the singer's face and character. I tend to take the historical justification: it's castrati literature from three hundred years ago. The problem is that modern ears will never know what the castrati really sounded like, nor will we ever understand the aesthetic choices of the eighteenth century, why the castrati were so amazing. Substituting castrati roles with countertenors may get the sound in the right octave, but it's not the "right" sound, vocally, nor does it have resonance with modern Western ears. The result requires my ears to perform amazing imaginative gymnastics to justify what I'm hearing and seeing, which for me detracted from the suspension of belief that any stage production (or artwork for that matter) requires.

Da Capo Arias: I realized after I took Jessica that this was probably the wrong performance to bring her. The narrative element lacks in The Enchanted Island. The predominant remaining factor is "style" or "manners." Jessica and I both left sympathetic to the criticisms aimed against opera seria's detractors, especially the English, that the action is completely stopped by the aria. The music and especially the vocal technique in this genre is saturated in a completely Baroque way with manners: trills at cadences, sequences, melismatic embellishment and sequences, lingering oh so sweetly upon the leading tone, and repetition. (I believe this aria is saying that "women are fickle" and has been for the past four minutes!) When the aria comes it's like a theater-piece-with-music suddenly becomes a stationary piece of visual-art-with-music. Perhaps I'm supposed to be carried away in empathetic emotion. Maybe I'm not quite Italian enough for that. :) I appreciate Baroque vocal music much more within the context of oratorio or cantata. These genres have that element of abstraction where, even in a narrative story like a Passion, musical lingering upon a single thought is not contingent upon visual/staged elements. It's all happening in your mind and your ears. Yes, I'm definitely supposed to be carried away!

Ariel: Danielle de Niese played the elemental spirit Ariel. I very much enjoyed her performance. She had energy and comedy, both of which justified some of the more vociferous melismatic arias. I especially enjoyed her Puck-ish bits with making a potion to send a storm at sea and her recitative on the word "Duh!" Plácido Domingo also did an excellent, over-the-hill Neptune who had sadly lost his dolphins and knew not where to find them.

I appreciated this production for what it was and was amazed at many of the pyrotechnics of the vocalists. For me, I'll wait and see what Götterdämmerung on Saturday holds!

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