In late January, I had the pleasure of attending two operas in the space of five days; one in a movie theater, the other in the house at Lyric Opera. Under the circumstances, a comparison was inevitable and here I made an unexpected discovery. In rating my enjoyment of the new opera versus one of the repertoire’s long-standing, crowd-pleasers, the new opera was the undisputed winner.
The new opera was Jeremy Sams’ pastiche at The Met, “The Enchanted Island” versus perhaps Giuseppe Verdi’s most popular score, “Aida”, at Lyric. I knew nothing about “Island” but assumed that a cast featuring counter-tenor David Daniels, mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato and soprano Danielle de Niese was not chopped liver and worth hearing. I was not disappointed.
Sams’ winning achievement was to combine two of Shakespeare’s plots, “The Tempest” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” with lovely arias plucked from a variety of Baroque operas by Handel, Vivaldi, Rameau and other composers. The blending of story and song was so seamless and charming that the plot played like Shakespeare’s true version and not a newly-made creation.
In Sams’ take on “The Tempest”, Prospero, the exiled Duke of Milan, lives on a remote island with his daughter Miranda. He is a sorcerer, surrounded by his books and magic potions. While Prospero initially seduced the sorceress, Sycorex, ruler of the island, he left her, stealing her sprite servant, Ariel, and enslaving her son, Caliban. And she wants revenge.
All hell begins breaking loose when Prospero, wanting to insure Miranda’s happiness, commands Ariel to cause a passing ship that contains the King of Naples and Prince Ferdinand to go aground. Caliban overhears the plan and informs his mother who devises a spell of her own that causes Ariel’s spell to go awry. What ensues is a riot of unintended consequences centered around hopelessly mismatched lovers. But all turns out for the best in the end: the rightful lovers find one another, Prospero is pardoned and apologizes to Sycorex.
Not only were the lovers under Ariel’s spell but so was the theater audience. The production sets and costumes looked like a million bucks. And in the pit, conductor William Christie, a renowned Baroque expert, had the Met’s orchestra playing crisply, in true to period style.
Neptune’s (Placido Domingo) grand entrance was a special effects show-stopper, complete with mermaids suspended in mid-air. While all the main characters deserve praise, Danielle de Niese’s prancing performance deserves special mention. She had my full attention throughout and owned whatever scene she appeared in.
(Great news Lyric Opera recently announced that it has engaged de Niese for the lead in its newly-commissioned opera, “Bel Canto”, that will debut December, 2015.)
At the end, the theater audience gave the Met HDLive presentation an ovation, something usually reserved for movie blockbusters. As I walked out, I saw most other patrons smiling and commenting on the triumph we had just witnessed.
Four days later, I went to “Aida” with high expectations. It was the first opera I went to as a teenager at the old Metropolitan Opera home on West 39th Street in New York. Nothing much of the production sticks in my mind except the sight of an elephant and horses arriving on stage during the famous triumphal entrance scene.
“Aida” is the Verdi work that defines the term “Grand Opera”. Verdi spins an epic tale of illicit love between Radames, a newly-returned Egyptian war hero, and an Ethiopian princess (Aida) who is the enslaved attendant to Amneris, the Pharoah’s daughter. When Radames spurns marrying Amneris, she discovers his secret love and plots her deadly revenge.
Lyric trotted out its successful Nicholas Joel production for the fifth time and enlisted top-flight Verdi performers–tenor Marcello Giordani, lyric soprano Sondra Radvanovsky and mezzo Jill Grove. Conductor, Renato Palumbo drew rich,dramatic, Verdi-style playing from the Lyric orchestra.
However, besides the singers and the score, what keeps faithful operagoers and neophytes alike coming back is the spectacle. While Lyric tried hard and packed the stage with at least 125 palace guards, priests, dancers and members of the court, the spectacle, surprisingly, fell flat. Pharoah was carried in on what appeared to be a wooden throne consisting of several stacked chairs rather than a golden one befitting his rank. And the costumes for the large contingent of priests/courtiers were topped by what one critic termed “funky domed hats” that proved distracting and inappropriate.
Coming so soon after seeing “Enchanted Island,” I never engaged with the story. While Giordani and Radvanovsky delivered perfectly-sung, affecting arias—“Celeste Aida” and the ravishing “O Patria Mia” respectively—their onstage chemistry never really clicked. This fatally undercut believability in their portrayal as lovers in the throes of passion, robbing the opera of its power to move listeners.
I must differ from John von Rhein’s comment that “Shakespeare would have been proud to have penned such a libretto.” The Bard, I believe, would have written more plot twists and injected more dramatic tension into the script to keep the action flowing. Instead, the die is cast in the first half-hour. It then takes three hours to reach the inevitable denouement.
Lyric’s production succeeds as a star turn for two fine Verdi interpreters but it just isn’t storytelling that appeals to a 21st Century listener. Perhaps it is time for Lyric to retire this production and find singers and staging that can invest this 140-year-old warhorse with more vigor.
(There are four remaining performance of “Aida” with a second cast, headed by acclaimed Chinese soprano, Hui He, on March 15, 19, 22, 25. For tickets, go to www.lyricopera.org).