Profoundly Shallow: Met’s Island Only Intermittently Enchanting

The Enchanted Island.

When the critic James Jorden proposed in November that Robert Lepage’s woeful Metropolitan Opera production of Wagner’s Ring cycle be scuttled and handed over, stage-filling set and all, to the directors Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch, he was only half-joking. His recommendation had a serious side.

In their production of Philip Glass’s Satyagraha, which came to the Met from the English National Opera in 2008 and was revived here in November, Mr. McDermott and Mr. Crouch combined old-fashioned theatrical techniques and video projections, demonstrating precisely the qualities needed to produce a memorable Ring: a sense of scale, wonder, and spectacle that amplifies the characters’ dramas rather than distracting from them.

They’ve shown those qualities again in The Enchanted Island, an airy 18th-century-style pastiche of Baroque arias by Handel, Vivaldi, and others set to new English lyrics in a plot that imagines the lovers of A Midsummer Night’s Dream washed up on the island of The Tempest. If the result, which opened at the Met on New Year’s Eve, is nowhere near as consequential or successful an opera as Satyagraha, Mr. McDermott and Mr. Crouch have approached it with the same pleasing mixture of seriousness and lightness.

Take the sequence in which the lovers’ ship is caught in the magical storm. We first see the characters on a cheerfully fake boat, sailing on cheerfully fake wood-cutout waves. (The set is old-fashioned: a series of receding prosceniums and flats that open and close to create different playing spaces.) Then, as the storm begins, projections of dark, roiling water begin encroaching on the idyllic scene. The sinking of the ship is almost unsettlingly vivid; the waves really seem to rise and threaten the entire stage and the audience itself.

It is a purely theatrical moment. Mr. Lepage’s Ring has these striking visual coups, too, but he doesn’t show any interest in human beings. Mr. McDermott and Mr. Crouch do, directing their singing actors with wit and feeling.

The problem is that there is only so much wit and feeling to mine in this all-star Enchanted Island. It’s watchable—which is saying a lot for the Met these days—and the patchwork of arias fits together without too many seams showing. The singers seem to be having a delightful time. But it still seems an awful lot of resources to throw at something so insubstantial.

The concept and script are by the British jack-of-all-trades Jeremy Sams, but the original idea was that of Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager. In a New York Times preview, Mr. Gelb put his foot in his mouth yet again, saying of the new production, “I wanted to play the Baroque card, but with a faster dramatic rhythm tailored to modern attention spans.”

Not only is that grotesquely insulting to the Met’s audience, but it makes no sense. It’s an especially stupid statement given that the Met has just finished an engrossing, moving revival of Handel’s Rodelinda, one of its best shows yet this season and one that seemed eminently well suited to modern attention spans. When a Handel opera—or a Lully, or a Vivaldi—is going on all burners, it seems to move along just fine.

If you do occasionally feel the length of these Baroque works it’s because they are, in fact, long. But they’re also riveting. The best of them, like Rodelinda, are cohesive dramatic works. The period was all about virtuosic performance, but it was performance with a point. Cleopatra in Giulio Cesare or Grimoaldo in Rodelinda change throughout their operas, their dazzling arias delineating their characters with a subtlety that remains startling today and which Mr. Sams struggles to give to his Enchanted Island denizens.

The emphasis here is on a vaguely defined, mostly irritating sense of “fun,” epitomized by the terminally perky Ariel of the shrill soprano Danielle de Niese, rather than convincing or involving emotions.

There is a lot of mugging and not a lot of depth. The witch Sycorax (an unseen presence in Shakespeare’s Tempest and here played by the artful and smooth, if sometimes underpowered, mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato) has been given a thin back story: she was loved, left and embittered by Prospero (the sensitive countertenor David Daniels). Prospero, ostensibly the opera’s central character, remains a cipher, with a sudden, anticlimactic transition to begging forgiveness, to the aching tune of “Ch’io parta?” from Handel’s Partenope, at the end.

The younger singers are the highlights, particularly Lisette Oropesa (Miranda) and Layla Claire (Helena). Luca Pisaroni is strong-voiced as Caliban, but he was so impressive this fall as Mozart’s Leporello because he was responsive to all of that famous part’s nuances. There aren’t many nuances here.

The conductor, who also played a role in choosing the repertory, is William Christie, one of the world’s great Baroque masters. He was more in his element here than at his Met debut in 2010 conducting Cosi fan tutte, but there were long stretches in which he pushed the tempos relentlessly without seeming really in sync with the singers. The orchestral textures were thicker than they should have been, and the Met’s players have shown themselves capable of better in this repertory: they were fantastic under Harry Bicket in Rodelinda.

But the musical values are not the issue, nor is a production that does its best with the material it is given. The problem is a basic concept and script that is playable but hardly as memorable as the works it mines for melodies. With over three hours of music, it’s also far from streamlined. If Mr. Gelb wanted a Baroque work “with a faster dramatic rhythm tailored to modern attention spans,” he will have to keep looking; the first act in particular lags badly.

In the great Baroque works, you are never aware of the elaborate calculations that give all the singers their fair share of arias while maintaining musical and dramatic continuity. At their best, these pieces don’t feel like parades of numbers, with the next singer waiting in the wings for his or her moment. But The Enchanted Island does. It has more in common with a decent gala concert than a real opera.

Profoundly Shallow: Met’s Island Only Intermittently Enchanting