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Of Pastiche and Profundity


“What is truth?” – John XVIII:38

For all its flaws, the Metropolitan’s “Enchanted Island,” as seen locally on WGBH-TV last Friday, provided us with some interesting insights into the profound nature and meaning of that oddest of human enterprises, opera.

It was a great A&R idea to have commissioned this pastiche of eighteenth century music, with a new, ad-hoc scenario for the Met. The inspiration for such an enterprise is the baroque music revival in Europe, where national opera houses and festivals are able to lavish major resources on seventeenth and eighteenth century operas, featuring adequately funded, historically informed performances in tandem with the indispensable, opulent theatrical values (“historical” or modernized, whatever) that make for a satisfying all-in-one experience.

For all kinds of reasons,  mainly our American private-market system of funding the arts, it is very, very difficult to make such things come about successfully here at home.  Our best taste of these kinds of productions are probably obtained via the French-government-subsidized appearances of Les Arts Florissants in New York.

The Metropolitan Opera has,  perhaps uniquely in the U.S.A.,  the deep pockets necessary to produce genuinely spectacular spectacles. But the size and scale of the Met’s room make “real” baroque opera almost impossible to realize there.  The culture of New York City loud singing is just too inimical to the musical/literary values of early opera to permit success (one can argue, listening over the air to some of the Met’s “mainstream” productions, that such strictures are also relevant to more recent operatic repertoire; but that’s another essay).

The other problem with many baroque operas is, let’s be honest, that the plots can be boring to modern audiences.  We have different expectations from the crowd back then.   We go to a concert or opera to listen/view, whereas the eighteenth century leisure classes who frequented their theater boxes five nights a week had plenty else on their minds besides the show onstage: food, card games, gossip, family/clan business, sexual intrigue and activity.  An opera house was the social media platform,  long before Facebook went public. People linked up and hooked up, and they paid attention  to those long, long spectacles onstage when they felt like it.

What pleased me about this televised broadcast was precisely the silliness and superficiality of the presentation. Viewing the three hour long show on the tube was not totally dissimilar from taking in a Neapolitan opera from one’s own box at the theater.  During a slow bit on the screen one could move about, discurse to one’s neighbor, run to the fridge for a snack…now that’s a “historically informed” experience!

Another historical verity made evident again via the telecast is the relatively less-important role of the compositional ingredient in the whole operatic enchilada.  When “Ercole Amante,” with music by Cavalli, was given at Versailles to celebrate the marriage of Louis XIV,  contemporary accounts apparently neglected to mention Cavalli’s specially-commissioned music. What got commented on at the time were the impurgated ballet sequences by court composer Lully (as I recall,  Cavalli, disgusted, went home to Venice,  never to return)

Similarly, during Ms. Voigt’s very, very brief introduction to the telecast, we were told that the music was by Handel, Rameau, and Vivaldi, but nothing more. That’s all folks.  The score is indeed a kludge,  the Handelian preponderance notwithstanding (and yes, there was  an impurgated ballet to French music by Rameau and whomever), and the stylistic contrasts and frequently awkward/ poorly   managed transitions  were jarring at times, assuming one was listening intently. There is apparently a list of pieces and their authors online. I did not look it up.  Did you?   In the true spirit of 18th century opera, the authorship of the music was treated as a matter of fairly little importance.  Another “historical” moment….

Concerning the performance, much has been written already by other hands. I found one of the best things to be the work from the pit. We know how fine Metropolitan orchestra is from hearing the “straight” productions,  but lo and behold, here,  on modern instruments, was a very pleasant and plausible similacrum of a baroque band, with attacks, phrasing, tempi and other such matters skillfully shaped by William Christie.  Right on, orchestra. The singing was by and large OK of its kind, with only the turn, as Neptune, by tenor-turned-baritone Placido Domingo, in full park-and-bark mode, leaving us truly disappointed. The most moving theatrical moment, in a show not especially aiming to plumb the depths of the human soul, came from Luca Pisaroni as a despairing,  deceived-in-love Caliban.  The real stars of the evening were the stage designer and special-effects mavens.  Everything in that department was utterly charming and seductive….once again, an unhistorical production ends up being “historically informed” on a deeper level.  More naked mermaids, please.

My only consistent frustration was with the English-language verses/lyrics. Yes, they moved the plot along,  and yes, there were clever moments, but how much of it rang flat, unmusical, and tone-deaf! Rumor has it that Metastasio, in heaven, was watching Friday on an old analog TV set, and that he was shaking his head. Same goes for Ira Gershwin.  Consonant, by the way, with the singers’ need to produce a “big” sound in a modern opera house, quite a bit of the text would have been unintelligible without the mercifully-supplied subtitles.

I’ve witnessed,  and enjoyed/learned from, baroque opera productions with the “right” instruments, the “right” costumes and sets, the “right” gestures, et cetera.  This particular pseudo-opera, however, managed to get us back in touch with some of the genuine show-business values of those dear, dead days.  I’m willing to watch it again, if it gets re-broadcast.

Joel Cohen is Artistic Director of Camerata Mediterranea, a nonprofit association incorporated in France, and Music Director Emeritus of The Boston Camerata. He has been a producer and assistant station manager for Radio France in Paris. With WCRB, he produced a syndicated radio series around the Boston Camerata’s music. He has been host of Morning Pro Musica at WGBH and a frequent interviewee on radio stations throughout the US, Europe, and South America.


4 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. *No Thanks…no interest… just another example of the MET spending money foolishly.

    I’am DVD-Xing the HD FAUST the Met hd shown in theatres this past season..its on WGBH-TV @ 1:00AM in HD..   Most of the major roles are with superb singers but the production… set in the current century promises to be even more hideous than the previous one… no doubt I’ll only listen rather than watch.

    Comment by Ed Burke — May 22, 2012 at 11:34 pm

  2. *Had the Enchanted Island been premiered in Europe, ehere baroque values are better understood,  it might have been a success.  This was a far better use of the Met’s thing for extravagant machinery than the Ring.

    Comment by D. Tchil — May 23, 2012 at 3:44 pm

  3. I’m not sure where Mr Cohen has been recently, but it does not sound as if he has visited Europe for a while. Just where are these opera house able to “lavish major resources on seventeenth and eighteenth century operas”?

    Comment by Brian Robins — May 23, 2012 at 3:45 pm

  4. *Brian,  I recently saw a sumptuous “Fairy Queen”(Purcell) at the Paris Opéra Comique,  and reviewed it in these columns.  I have a more-lavish-yet memory of “Les Indes Galantes” (Rameau) at the Paris Salle Garnier, several seasons back. And, still farther back,  a number of _grand spectacle_ souvenirs from the Aix-en-Provence festival.  Others’ mileage/memories may vary: for instance,  the now-legendary Opéra Comique production of Lully’s “Atys” was revived last season and unseen by me.  But the point is, we in North America are hard pressed to match these production values.

    Comment by Joel Cohen — May 23, 2012 at 11:41 pm

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