A So-So Week for Opera: A Less-Than-‘Enchanted Island’ at One Met

Acoustically challenged war stories at the other

Plácido Domingo stars in  'The Enchanted Island.'

Plácido Domingo stars in
‘The Enchanted Island.’

Broadly speaking, there are two types of New Yorkers: the ones who say “I’m going to the Met” meaning “I’m going to see an opera” and the ones to whom the phrase means “I’m finally going to see those Piero della Francescas everyone has been talking about.” Recently, though, opera showed up at both Mets, the Metropolitan Opera and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

At Lincoln Center Feb. 26, the Met brought back its production of The Enchanted Island, which premiered in 2011. Two seasons ago, it was not just a new production but the first-ever performance of a new work cobbled together from bits and pieces of 18th-century operas and oratorios, fitted to a libretto concocted by British writer and director Jeremy Sams.

In other words, it’s a classical jukebox musical: a baroque Mamma Mia! Or to put it in more scholarly terms, it is what was known in the 1700s as a pasticcio. The demand for fresh operas back then was so intense that even so important a composer as Handel might recycle a dozen or so of his lesser-known arias, adapt a few bits by other composers, then commission a new libretto to fit the existing tunes. Voilà, a “new” opera!

This modern pasticcio, The Enchanted Island, is comprised primarily of music by Handel and Vivaldi—so far so good. Though each of these composers had his own distinctive manner, they used similar musical forms such as the da capo aria, and so the transition from one to the other is reasonably smooth. But the score also includes several important numbers adapted from Rameau and other French composers of the period, written in a radically different style from Handel’s and Vivaldi’s opera seria. This is where things go askew. The sudden stylistic lurches back and forth are as jarring as if you sneaked a couple of Andrew Lloyd Webber songs into the score of Sweeney Todd.

What’s worse, Mr. Sams’ libretto combines trivial drama with clunky poetic diction. The plot is a mishmash of two Shakespeare comedies, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest. The newly married Athenians from the former play are shipwrecked on the magical island of Prospero; meanwhile, the sorcerer’s spurned lover, Sycorax, and her monstrous son, Caliban, plot to regain control of the island. Eventually, King Neptune (Placido Domingo) has to intervene, and presumably he ordains a happy ending—though with the veteran tenor mangling Mr. Sams’ jaw-breaking lyrics, it’s anyone’s guess how the show really finishes.

The cast includes some fine artists with strong résumés in baroque opera: countertenor David Daniels as Prospero, bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni as Caliban and Danielle de Niese as Ariel. Curiously, in a theater piece crafted to their particular talents, none comes off well. They are saddled with music that is alternately too high, too low and too fast moving.

A major newcomer to the revival is mezzo-soprano Susan Graham, taking on the part of Sycorax created by Joyce DiDonato back in 2011 and making it her own with a witty comic performance. Her one misstep is the interpolation of an aria from Handel’s Alcina, “Sta nell’Ircana,” as her star turn. This heroic call to arms was a superb vehicle for Ms. Graham 15 years ago when she sang the original opera, but now, the piece’s thrilling back-and-forth of fanfares between voice and orchestral horns left the veteran artist short of breath. She suffered, too, by comparison with Elizabeth DeShong, also a mezzo, who only minutes before ripped through a similarly bombastic aria with dazzling bravura.

Yet even the gifted Ms. DeShong made only a pretty good impression with an aria that should have brought down the house. Again, the fault is Mr. Sams’. In its original form, the aria is called “Where shall I fly?” from Handel’s Hercules, in which the jealous queen, Dejanira, goes mad with shame at her complicity in the murder of her husband, the titular hero. At the climax of a high tragedy, the guilty wife’s whirling vocal lines call upon the Furies to punish her for her crime. In the context of The Enchanted Island, though, the piece accompanies the ingenue Hermia’s hissy fit at a temporary separation from her hubby. Grisliest of all, Mr. Sams’ forgettable lyric rhymes “together” with “forever” like a bad 1970s pop song.

Still, the whimsical picture-book sets by Julian Crouch are fun to look at, and the costumes by Kevin Pollard include a regal russet-gold gown for Ms. Graham suitable for a coronation. If your idea of a good time is  people in fancy outfits warbling “Rejoice! The day of gladness is here at last!” while mermaids scatter gold glitter from the heavens, by all means, visit The Enchanted Island.

It’s a little harder to figure out who the target audience was for Gotham Chamber Opera’s presentation at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which perhaps explains why the audience on Thursday night numbered no more than a couple hundred. Then again, the $175 ticket price—for a show lasting barely an hour—may have scared off the some of the hoi polloi.

They missed a modest but polished program. First up was Monteverdi’s 1624 dramatic cantata Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda, which tells of a duel to the death between two lovers. This piece was staged arena style in the museum’s Emma and Georgina Bloomberg Arms and Armor Court, with the audience standing in a circle around the performers.

Maybe my experience wasn’t typical—I arrived just a few minutes before the announced performance time—but what I saw was mostly backs of heads and what I heard varied wildly depending on which direction the singers were facing. When they turned away, the high vaulted ceiling of the space distorted the sound with blurry reverb. Even under these adverse conditions, though, the crisp, eloquent diction of tenor Samuel Levine made his Narrator a standout.

We then processed through the museum’s gloomy Medieval Sculpture Hall to discover what looked like a rust-colored skateboarding ramp set in the middle of the room. Perched atop the structure was Mr. Levine, now dressed in army fatigues, rolling a joint and listening to electronic music on a jambox.

This was the prologue, we discovered, to I Have No Stories to Tell You with music by Lembit Beecher and libretto by Hannah Moscovitch. Like Il Combattimento, this was also a war story; in fact, this was the third new opera on the subject of post-traumatic stress disorder I’ve seen in a little over a year.

I’m beginning to think PTSD isn’t a good operatic subject. I Have No Stories is a psychological study of Sorrel, a former army medic haunted by combat memories. Mezzo-soprano Beth Clayton was vocally and dramatically gripping in the lead role, scoring particularly with low, soft singing that bordered on speech. But she was undercut by a libretto that attempted to put on stage the acts of horrific violence that traumatized her character. Sitting only a few feet from the stage, we could easily see that the wounded Noah (Mr. Levine) wasn’t, as the text insists, bleeding uncontrollably.

Craig Verm brought a richly textured baritone to the thankless role of Sorrel’s sympathetic partner, Daniel. A trio of “memory” voices headed by the lush-sounding mezzo-soprano Abigail Fischer was one of a variety of interesting effects the composer used to set this unconvincing text; even more striking was the orchestral sound that combined period instruments with electronic noise. Conductor Neal Goren’s leadership of both operas was notable for sensitive attention to the singers’ declamation.

So I’m eager to hear more operas from Mr. Beecher, and I’m looking forward to the next Gotham Chamber Opera presentation, but, please, can it be in a more conventional theater?