Given the importance of the New Year's Eve Gala to the Metropolitan Opera's fundraising efforts, it is quite extraordinary that Saturday night the Met ushered in the new year not with a War Horse (like "Carmen" or "La Traviata" the past few years), not with a party opera (like "Die Fledermaus" in years past) but with a pastiche of early 18th century opera.
"The Enchanted Island," which got its world premiere Saturday night, is an entirely fabricated concoction based on the music of early 18th century composers written for a host of now mostly obscure, unknown operas, with a plot roughly based on two plays of Shakespeare and featuring two countertenors.
It is to the credit of Met general manager Peter Gelb not only that he took this financial risk but that he came up with the idea in the first place. According to Jeremy Sams, the English writer-director (best known here, perhaps for his splendid revival of Michael Frayn's "Noises Off" a decade ago) ,it was Gelb who fantasized about a work that would resurrect some of the forgotten treasures of the Baroque Era not as a concert but as an evening's entertainment that had a plot. Moreover, Gelb suggested that rather than the original languages, everything be sung in English.
It was a tall order, but Sams, who is, among many other things, a conductor, fulfilled it. He worked in close association with William Christie, the specialist in 18th century music, who conducted the work's premiere. Sams based his somewhat complicated plot on those of "The Tempest" and "A Midsummer Night's Dream," both of which take place in "the real world" and that of the imagination.
Not surprisingly, the lion's share of the music in "The Enchanted Island" is by that supreme man of the theater, George Frideric Handel. His dramatic skills have been on display recently with the revival of "Rodelinda," mounted as a vehicle for Renee Fleming. It is a four-hour opera of great dramatic tension with aria after aria that leaves you breathless. His contributions to "The Enchanted Island" include stellar work from his operas and his oratorios.
The second-most used composer is Antonio Vivaldi, who has come into his own only in the last half-century. A work I value greatly is Barlow and Morgenstern's "Dictionary of Musical Themes," first published in 1948 around the time LPs were introduced. If some tune was driving you crazy because you couldn't identify it, if you could transpose it into the key of C, this dictionary had an index that could help you find it in a jiffy.
Why do I bring it up? Because although the dictionary has pieces long forgotten, it does not include themes from Vivaldi's "The Four Seasons," surely one of the most popular and familiar works in all classical music. That is because in 1948 it had not yet been recorded and was little known. Only in recent decades has Vivaldi's operatic output been explored, and Sams has found several very persuasive pieces to include here.
Among the other composers is the Frenchman Jean-Philippe Rameau, a major 18th century fiigure ripe for exploration.
As would have been the case in the 18th century, when composers often wrote for specific voices, several of the singers in the opening cast collaborated with Sams and Christie on the work. These included countertenor David Daniels, who plays Prospero, mezzo-soprano Joyce di Donato, who plays an expanded version of a minor character in 'The Tempest," Caliban's mother, and Placido Domingo, who plays Neptune, apparently the first time he has sung the role of a god.
The result is, quite simply, a triumph. Daniels gives a commanding performance as Prospero, especially in arias near the very beginning and at the end. These are solemn works which he invests with a simplicity and intimacy that gives them great emotional power.
Di Donato has an opportunity to exhibit fireworks as Caliban's aggrieved mother, Sycorax. Shakespeare interpreters have noted that this offstage character can be seen as an indictment of colonialism since Prospero, a political refugee from Milan, usurps her power and takes over her land. In an appropriately 21st century gesture, Sams gives it back to her.
Bass Luca Pisaroni has enormous vocal strength as her son. Just as Shakespeare gives this seemingly base creature some of his most lyrical poetry, Pisaroni has some florid passages he sings with impressive ease.
Danielle de Niese is in gorgeous voice in the role of Ariel, which Sams has given greater emotional complexity than the original. Among the standouts is mezzo Elizabeth DeShong as Hermia, who is spectacular in a "rage" aria (the kind Mozart often parodied) in the second act. But there is consummate singing by all the "Dream" lovers, Layla Clare, Paul Appleby and Elliot Madore.
Soprano Lisette Oropesa and countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo sing a heavenly duet as Miranda and Ferdinand. Needless to say, Domingo sings with his customary distinction as Neptune, betraying no hint of his seven decades.
In the pit Christie makes sure the style of these pieces, somewhat austere to our ears, is respected, with no loss in emotional power or intimacy.
The physical production, by Julian Crouch, a recreation of the grandeur of the Baroque staqe, is sumptuous. So are Kevin Pollard's elaborate costumes. Brian MacDevitt has lit the piece with his customary sensitivity.
"The Enchanted Island" is an unabashed extravaganza, both musically and visually. On a more serious note, it is a reminder of the riches of the operatic repertoire still to be mined. Its celebratory spirit was certainly a great way to greet the new year.