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Heather Mac Donald
Breathing New Life into the Baroque
Two recent productions broaden the repertoire.
24 August 2012

Few Baroque operas (and all by Handel) have clawed their way from oblivion to the margins of the standard repertoire, a source of chagrin to anyone who loves the period or simply hungers for broader musical experience. The Metropolitan Opera and New York City Opera offered radically different solutions to this lacuna earlier this year. NYCO revived an unknown opera by Georg Philipp Telemann in a beautiful and expertly performed production at El Museo del Barrio. The Metropolitan Opera crafted an entirely new work from music by eight Baroque composers, set to a new libretto in English.

The Met’s venture was the riskier proposition, bound to trigger grumbling among Baroque aficionados who resented the missed opportunity to stage an historical work. But while the revival of existing operas such as Telemann’s Orpheus at NYCO contributes more to our musical knowledge in the long run, the Met’s Enchanted Island must also be counted a resounding (and insufficiently appreciated) success. This exuberant new work is the exact opposite of the reigning spirit in European opera houses, with their sour didacticism, distrust of beauty, and heavy-handed political agenda. The Enchanted Island revels in innocence, joy, and the pleasures of give-it-all-you’ve-got stagecraft. By the end of the first act, as silver-spangled mermaids floated languorously over a gold-clad Neptune (Plácido Domingo), while his opalescent underwater court thundered forth a regal anthem of praise, any misgivings I myself had about the endeavor gave way before sheer delight.

Both Telemann’s Orpheus and the Met’s Enchanted Island are examples of the pasticcio (pastiche) opera, a common tradition in earlier centuries that challenges many contemporary musical ideals. Today’s early-music movement accords sanctity to a composer’s intentions and compositions. Scholars and musicians search for the most “authentic” versions of scores, unmarred by publishers’ later emendations, and strive to recreate performance practice from the composer’s own time in the hope of reflecting what he himself would have wanted for his work.

This passion for historical authenticity is deeply admirable, but it just happens to be historically inauthentic. The composers whom we now rightly treat with reverence showed no such respect towards their own or others’ works. To feed the voracious demand for staged musical entertainments, composers such as Handel, Gluck, and Haydn plundered their own and others’ music and recycled it into a new story with new libretto, when time and inspiration were in short supply. Though the pasticcio practice was strongest in the eighteenth century, in 1828, Rossini frugally repurposed his 1825 Italian-language coronation masque, Il Viaggio a Reims, as a French-language opera, Le Comte Ory. The metamorphosis of Viaggio’s arias into their wildly dissimilar French settings has to make any of us who believe in the organic connection between words and music (a belief which underlies the current presumption against performing opera and Lieder in translation) a little unsettled.

Adding to the mongrel quality of many Baroque and classical opera performances, singers inserted their favorite arias into whatever opera they were performing, regardless of whether those numbers fit musically or thematically, just so they could show off their voice in what they deemed its most flattering setting. Bohemian composer Ludwig Wenzel Lachnith created history’s most infamous pasticcio in 1801 for the Paris Opera: Les Mystères d’Isis, a rewriting of Mozart’s Magic Flute, with interpolations from Don Giovanni and La Clemenza di Tito. Though the Parisian public loved Les Mystères, Hector Berlioz savaged it in his Memoirs, noting incredulously that Don Giovanni’s “Fin ch’han del vino”—“that explosion of licentious energy in which the whole character of the Don is summed up”—reappeared as a trio for two sopranos and bass, who sang:

Joy past all telling!
My heart is swelling!
How my lot is different from his!

Berlioz’s disgust reflected the Romantic ideal of the artist whose genius should not be tampered with and anticipated the authenticity revolution by over a century.

Telemann added an unusual twist to the pastiche tradition in his 1726 Orpheus, written for Hamburg’s Gänsemarkt Opera, where he served as music director. Though Orpheus is predominantly in German, Telemann borrowed aria texts from Italian and French operas and kept them in their original language, but set most of them to his own music. The singers switch unpredictably between those three languages, just as the score flows between Bachian pathos, Italian da capo flamboyance, and French courtly grandeur. The German diction of NYCO’s excellent all-American cast was impressive, but their French was almost uniformly incomprehensible, suggesting that French, counter-intuitively, is a harder language to sing than German, or that music conservatories simply neglect it.

Telemann crafted his libretto from a 1690 French tragedy, which added a major new character to the Orpheus myth—Queen Orasia, unrequitedly in love with the famed poet-musician. Orasia orders a snake to kill Orpheus’s bride Eurydice in revenge for his rejection of her love, and when he again spurns her after his failed attempt to bring Eurydice back from the underworld, she commands her followers, the Bacchantes, to massacre him. Telemann’s score contained a pleasing variety of vocal combinations, unlike Italian opera seria, with its almost exclusive emphasis on virtuoso solos. Duets and quartets, accompanied now by recorder, now by theorbo, alternated with energetic choruses.

Director Rebecca Taichman inevitably updated the action, but with a light touch that respected the work’s narrative conventions and kept the usual distracting effluvia of modern gadgets to a minimum. David Zinn’s stripped-down sets possessed a timeless elegance; a wedding centerpiece of white dogwood and apricot roses, set against a silkscreened stage backdrop of deep ruby flowers, was particularly gorgeous. Mark Dendy fused Baroque formality and modern elasticity in his choreography for an interpolated silent character, Thanatos or Death, danced by the impossibly lithe Catherine Miller in bloodless white face, flaming orange hair, and a lace bodice that clung to her torso like ivy. In one especially striking image, Miller poisoned Eurydice by encircling her with her body and lasciviously licking her lips, chest, and hands.

Taichman’s updating paid off in Hades, hilariously portrayed as the sleek executive suite of a black-clad corporate CEO, whose cowering, headset-bedecked assistants type frantically at their laptops while stealing tremulous glances at their pompous boss. As a still unseen Orpheus approaches Pluto’s subterranean realm, heralded by a pulsing recorder line that recalls the celestial opening chorus of Bach’s Cantata BMV 8, “Liebster Gott,” the infernal order breaks down. Red rose petals spring from Pluto’s breast pocket and fall from his secretaries’ hair and keyboards. Nicholas Pallesen was a winning mogul, laughing nervously at the floral eruptions, then wearily burying his face in his hands as a factotum announces that even the three-headed dog Cerberus, whose fierceness exceeds his master’s, was kind to this approaching stranger. The sinister tautness of Pallesen’s baritone melted into vulnerability as Pluto acknowledges Orpheus’s superior power: “Since you have charmed my realm, the damned will be released from their toil.” The secretaries snap shut their computers and Pluto doffs his tie, coat, and suspenders, as he bids the tormented souls to rest.

The rest of the young cast showed an admirable understanding of Baroque style, a testament to the spread of early music training. The bright-eyed Jennifer Rowley almost stole the show as the imperious Orasia, whether aggressively applying lip gloss before accosting Orpheus or fussily trading up a massive jeweled necklace for an even larger one. Her piercing soprano pinned one’s ears back as she blazed through coloratura leaps that anticipated the Queen of the Night’s histrionics.

As Orpheus, baritone Daniel Teadt delivered a fabulously syncopated denunciation of court life, one of many rhetorical conventions from pastoral poetry that infused the libretto. The sweet-voiced tenor Victor Ryan Robertson as Orpheus’s sidekick Eurimedes was a charmingly insecure suitor, fueling up on wedding Champagne before approaching his beloved, only to be rejected by that proud Amazon, soprano Meredith Lustig, in a ringing hunting song praising freedom.

Orasia’s attendant Ismene (soprano Michelle Areyzaga) had the opera’s most traditional text, a harmonically rich paean to Epicurean self-control (pointedly lacking in Ismene’s impetuous mistress) that could have been written by opera seria’s most ubiquitous librettist, Pietro Metastasio. Areyzaga sung the implicit admonition with impressively secure high notes and rapid dynamic contrasts. Joélle Harvey conveyed Eurydice’s unshakable trust in Orpheus during her abortive ascent from the underworld with a line of liquid purity. A small early-music ensemble played with verve and energy, led from the virginal by Juilliard lecturer Gary Thor Wedow.

Telemann’s borrowings in Orpheus were modest compared with the audacity of the Met’s pastiche, which leapt across three centuries of musical history and four centuries of literary history. British playwright Jeremy Sams acted as librettist and belated musical impresario for The Enchanted Island, drawing most heavily from Handel’s early operas, cantatas, and oratorios, with Vivaldi sadly coming in a distant second, followed by Rameau, and one selection each from Purcell, Giovanni Battista Ferrandini, Jean-Marie Leclair, Jean-Féry Rebel, and André Campra (whose 1712 opera Idomenée inspired Mozart’s own Idomeneo). The French music meshed surprisingly seamlessly into the Italianate score, though Rameau’s ballet scores and the glissandos in the Leclair aria stood out immediately for their Versailles grandeur. The overture seemed in danger of spinning out of control, but apart from other fleeting moments of disaggregation, French Baroque specialist William Christie elicited appropriate artifice and rhetorical inflection from the Met orchestra.

Sams’s choice of less familiar, if not outright obscure, works by Handel was undoubtedly deliberate; the more one knows an aria, the harder it will be to accept its refashioning with new text and dramatic content, given our current passion for authenticity. It’s inconceivable that anyone today would dare to reset any music from Mozart’s central canon, say, as Lachnith did; the sense of travesty would be too great for a modern audience to tolerate. The hostility expressed by some Baroque experts to The Enchanted Island (one critic walked out in contempt during the first act) undoubtedly stems in part from their hearing known music wrenched into a radically new guise. Sams’s lyrics did not always ease the transition. He had a predilection for internal repetition (“I have no words for this feeling I am feeling;” “I may be growing older, still I am still your master”) and the occasional teen-speak (“Duh!”), which contributed to the libretto’s intermittent pop-psychological feel. In Sams’s defense, he had to fit words to an existing musical line, the reverse of the usual order of composition. And with the disappearance of opera in translation, our ears are no longer accustomed much to opera in English, which can sound pedestrian in comparison with the original. Even if one understands Italian or German, their foreignness creates a sense of elevating aesthetic distance and formality. “Padre,” “madre,” and “figlio” are among the most common words in opera seria, and yet The Enchanted Island’s own treatment of filial relations was at once touching and touchy-feely, more Into the Woods than Idomeneo—a difference perhaps due to the disappearance of such themes as royal duty and sacrifice, but perhaps due simply to the unwonted immediacy of the English language.

For the plot of The Enchanted Island, Sams spliced together Shakespeare’s Tempest and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Prospero, the exiled Duke of Milan, is still stranded on a remote island with his daughter Miranda. The witch Sycorax, only mentioned in The Tempest, once consorted with Prospero, but now she and her misfit son Caliban chafe under his tyrannical rule. The Duke schemes to marry his daughter to Prince Ferdinand of Naples in order to end their joint exile, and he bids his spirit-servant Ariel to capsize Ferdinand’s passing ship and bring him to shore. Instead, Ariel mistakenly shipwrecks the two pairs of lovers from Midsummer Night’s Dream, now happily married and on their joint honeymoon voyage in Gainsboroughesque resplendence. Once the honeymooners have washed up on shore, they recapitulate the potion-induced mismatches of Midsummer’s Night Dream, thanks to further errors by Ariel—except this time, the men, Demetrius and Lysander, direct their amorous attentions to the more than receptive Miranda, to the outrage of both their wives. Finally Ferdinand arrives on the island, he and Miranda fall in love, and order and harmony are restored.

The action unfolded within a Maurice-Sendakian forest of writhing roots and exotic foliage, periodically transformed by high-tech video wizardry. In the most sublime video projection, a roiling mass of creamy silver and white waves engulfs the stage when Ariel’s storm hits the seaborne spouses; the viewer plunges to the bottom of a towering canyon of water, as if about to be entombed under a liquid avalanche. The glorious Neptune court scene, with its undulating mermaids tossing glittering spangles upon their king, was unmistakably camp, but such exuberant visual spectacle, even if tongue-in-cheek, belongs squarely to the operatic tradition of crowd-pleasing volcanic eruptions and collapsing temples. Associate director and set designer Julian Crouch summed up the mostly British production team’s reigning philosophy at a Met panel discussion: “We’re giving people what they secretly want when they go to the theater. We’re giving them treats, not anything perverse or self conscious or intellectual.” Them’s fightin’ words today, as Crouch undoubtedly knew.

In the figure of Caliban, Sams and Italian bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni created something beyond “treats”—a character who enters the realm of archetype. Pisaroni appeared frequently on American stages this last season: he played a virile Leporello in the Met’s new production of Don Giovanni and a dashing Argante in the Chicago Lyric Opera’s Rinaldo, and he gave a masterful song recital with Michael Schade at Alice Tully Hall. While all of those performances were estimable, none had the emotional impact of his Caliban. His face painted in egg-yolk yellow and stark white as if he had escaped from the cast of The Lion King, an iron collar and chain dragging down his torso, Pisaroni began the opera as a conventional villain, hissing out his ambitions to wrest control of the island from Prospero (here he is singing the Italian original of the aria). But when his mother Sycorax (Joyce DiDonato) leads him to one of the shipwrecked wives, draped in a spell-induced slumber across a tree stump, a spine-tingling transformation occurs. Caliban crouches over the rosy, Pre-Raphaelite Helena (Layla Claire) like an animal sniffing his prey, then whispers in a choked voice: “Mother, my blood is freezing . . . I half-worship, half-desire.” The Vivaldi aria which Sams uses here, “Gelido in ogni vena” (“Frozen in every vein”) from Il Farnace, conveys a single sentiment: the horror of a father who believes that his son has just been killed. In Sams’s hands, the text becomes more complex, expressing the terror of beauty and the warring sentiments of awe and lust. Pisaroni’s diction was a seduction in itself, so thoroughly had he conquered the English language, with only his aristocratically rolled R’s suggesting the presence of a non-native speaker.

When Helena wakes and looks inquisitively at the rude creature hovering over her, Sycorax nudges him out of his paralysis: “Say something, she is waiting!” Pisaroni clears his throat and ventures gallantly: “You angel of this earth, are you awake?” Asked his name, he responds in a demure falsetto, “Caliban.”

What followed drew on one of the most erotic and moving myths that we possess: that of Beauty and the Beast. Like Titania, Helena has been enchanted to fall in love with a monstrosity, but the object of her more lady-like affection is quite unlike Bottom. That Athenian weaver remains a buffoonish blowhard under the Fairy Queen’s wild effusions; Caliban, by contrast, becomes a meek, courtly votary, amazed at his good luck. When Helena gives Pisaroni a tiny kiss, he draws back in surprise. He pads happily after his lady, arms outstretched like a toy soldier, as she wanders across the island identifying its luxuriant vegetation; his lei of water lilies and silly flower-bedecked hat recall the garlands that Titania and her fairies weave between Bottom’s fuzzy ass ears.

A brontosaurus appears in the background, and Caliban tries to assuage Helena’s fear in the opera’s most successful musical metamorphosis. Sams selected a simple, six-line aria from Handel’s Deidamia, in which an old man reflects on his withdrawal from life’s hurly-burly (“Nel riposo e nel contento” [“In repose and contentment”]), and substituted verse inspired by Caliban’s haunting words to Trinculo in Act III, scene iii, of The Tempest:

Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not.
. . . [I]n dreaming,
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that, when I waked,
I cried to dream again.

Sams’s version of this conceit perforce does not match Shakespeare’s elegant economy (in fact, it also echoes “The Music of the Night” from Phantom of the Opera). And yet, in context and accompanied by Handel’s soothing low melody, Sams’s lines created an extraordinarily poignant moment of emotional vulnerability (here at minute 4.00):

If the air should thrum with voices, don’t be frightened, don’t be troubled or dismayed, it’s the island . . . let it woo you, let its magical music flow through you. . . . And this sound is so consoling, it comes rolling from the mountains to the shore. It haunts me as I’m sleeping; I have woken, woken weeping, for I long to dream once more.

Pisaroni pensively withdrew into himself as he sang, only to be beckoned out of his melancholy by Helena’s touch. Startled, he looked up and added:

It’s so lovely, I can’t bear it, but now someone’s here to share it, it is lovelier than before.

It is Caliban’s susceptibility to beauty that makes this scene so powerful. The Beauty and the Beast topos derives its romantic power from the spectacle of savage force succumbing to gracefulness, in the process revealing its own hidden nobility. All the more painful, then, when Sycorax’s spell wears off and Helena runs off in panic from her misshapen suitor. Pisaroni’s face remains an immobile mask as he falls to the ground, first pushing Sycorax away, then impetuously grabbing her in despair. Sams breaks the pathos with the line: “There wasn’t just chemistry, mother, there was botany,” referring to Helena’s Linnaean interest in plants.

Caliban takes his imaginary revenge in a Boschian dream of lust and power, in which syphilitic courtiers in garish yellow, red, and blue finery bow before him while writhing females with unicorn heads mount leering satyrs. This bilious anti-masque, set to Rameau’s ballet music (with one air by Rebel), was the most imaginative and well-executed dance sequence that the Met has staged in a long time, thanks to Graciela Daniele’s Bob Fosse-inflected Baroque choreography, Brian MacDevitt’s Toulouse-Lautrec-inspired lighting, and Julian Crouch’s fantastic animal masks.

Pisaroni’s may have been the most gripping performance of the evening, but the rest of the cast was also superb. Soprano Danielle de Niese radiated unbridled energy as Ariel, yearning to be released from bondage to Prospero but constantly flubbing the magic tasks that would win her her freedom. In feathered leggings and wonderfully curvaceous haunches, she moved with the stylized gestures of a Rococo Pan, her plastic features simultaneously expressing fear, supplication, and hopefulness. She stepped joyfully onto the stage for her final aria, gold-bedecked as a God in Montezuma’s Mexico, and flew like a boomerang through the leaps and trills of “Agitata da due venti” from Vivaldi’s Griselda. Studio recordings of this fiendishly difficult number are more precise in their phrasing, but De Niese’s charisma was irresistible.

Mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato as Sycorax displayed the exquisite command of rhythm and phrasing that makes her such a peerless exponent of the Baroque repertoire. For her opening number, “Maybe soon, maybe now”—based on an eerie, stuttering aria, “Morirò, ma vendicata,” from Handel’s Teseo—she dug into the lowest, darkest regions of her voice, unafraid to sound ugly and harsh. Over the course of the evening, she traded up her Janis Joplin bag-lady look, complete with eagle feathers hanging from her dreadlocks, for peacock finery. The creators may have taken their declared belief that opera requires big gestures too much to heart, however, in directing DiDonato to telegraph “witch” by jabbing her elbows out like a grasshopper and helicoptering her arms.

Plácido Domingo as the world-weary, eco-conscious Neptune continues to amaze with his vocal longevity: he sounded, quite simply, great. His Baroque ornamentation was stylish, even if his English occasionally amounted to mush. Neptune fears the loss of his power, a metaphor for the ravages of age that ran touchingly throughout the work.

The two pairs of spouses were appealing and buoyant, the men, like Caliban, adorably innocent and shy. Demetrius (Paul Appleby) and Lysander (Elliot Madore) paw at each other like kittens in mittens when they realize that they are both rivals for Miranda’s (Lisette Oropesa) affections. The opera’s celebration of married love reflected its unapologetic embrace of the Enlightenment values of its musical sources. Mezzo soprano Elizabeth DeShong as Hermia appears to be a successor to Stephanie Blythe in the effortless, rounded power of her voice.

The musical discovery of the production was Anthony Roth Costanzo as Prince Ferdinand, yet another in the seemingly endless wave of fabulous countertenors who keep washing onto opera stages today. Costanzo marked his entrance with a magical messa di voce—a crescendo and diminuendo on a single note that was the specialty of the Baroque castrati—his voice floating over the orchestra as if out of nowhere. He stepped into the role of Prospero on January 31; his plea for forgiveness at the opera’s end was characterized by sexy low notes and the feline languor that makes the countertenor voice so mesmerizing.

David Daniels as Prospero was the one disappointment of the cast—emotionally monochromatic, he failed to rise convincingly above his default peevishness even at the end. His sound was sometimes forced, as if he were laboring to fill the Metropolitan’s cavernous space. Daniels’s Rinaldo at Chicago Lyric Opera this season suffered from a similar intermittent shrillness; fans who will never forget his diaphanous duet with Blythe from the Met’s 1999 Giulio Cesare can only hope that he recovers his vocal suppleness.

Both these productions were credits to their institutions. To say that the New York City Opera has itself been in purgatory along with Orpheus would be an understatement. Ever since the preening Gerard Mortier, Europe’s leading impresario of Regietheater, quit his position as NYCO’s general manager before even starting work in 2008 (while walking off with a $335,000 severance package), the company has caromed from one financial crisis to another. It decamped from its home at Lincoln Center’s State Opera Theater, unable to pay the exorbitant stagehand union rates, and cut its season down to four productions. One critic asked whether there was any point to NYCO any more.

Orpheus answers that question unambiguously in the affirmative. General manager George Steel would do well to restart the company’s 1990s tradition of Baroque revivals, ideally branching out, as here, beyond Handel. But even without a commitment to the Baroque (and there’s none in the 2012–13 season), Steel will enrich New York’s musical life by continuing to bring lesser-known works from all periods back to life. Unfortunately, he seems wedded to the Regietheater director Christopher Alden, guaranteeing that next season’s production of Offenbach’s La Périchole, otherwise an event to be eagerly anticipated, will trade the opera’s Belle Époque fizz for an incoherent, self-involved subtext. It’s a shame that Steel did not reengage Mark Lamos for another go at the French fin de siècle; Lamos’s visually brilliant 2002 production of Chabrier’s L’Étoile trumped in surreal zaniness anything that the aesthetically challenged Alden has ever done.

The Met took a beating in the press over the last year, some of the criticism justified, some not. The Enchanted Island deserves greater prominence in any assessment of general manager Peter Gelb’s record, and it belongs squarely in the credit side of the ledger. Gelb still has not persuasively explained why he decided to commission a pastiche rather than stage an existing Baroque opera, but one unheralded contribution of The Enchanted Island is to have added a comedy to the operatic repertoire, a species virtually absent from the Baroque period and sorely underrepresented in later centuries. Paradoxically, Sams crafted his light-hearted work out of tragic or otherwise morally serious musical materials, an alchemy that the composers themselves would have undoubtedly admired. Gelb can now placate the Baroque establishment, understandably ruing the opportunity cost of The Enchanted Island, by putting the Met’s unparalleled resources behind an actual historical work. My vote would be for Vivaldi, filled with astoundingly gorgeous, wind-swept music.

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