In the 18th century, composers like Handel, Vivaldi, and Rameau often repurposed their own work to create fabulous theatrical evenings that showcased the greatest artists of their day. Now, the Met is breathing new life into the charming form of the pastiche as a way to celebrate Baroque opera’s renewed popularity and to spotlight its extraordinary current interpreters, including Joyce DiDonato, David Daniels, and Plácido Domingo.
The Enchanted Island, with a new libretto conceived by the brilliant director, writer, and composer Jeremy Sams, places the four lovers from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream on Prospero’s island from The Tempest. It’s all set to the music of the greatest Baroque master composers, from Handel and Leclair to Vivaldi and Rameau. The dazzlingly inventive production, which combines Baroque period scenery and advanced video techniques, is by Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch (the team behind Satyagraha).
William Christie, Conductor The Enchanted Island is an enormous departure from what is generally done at the Met—it corresponds to a genre called the pastiche. Essentially, you create a new piece out of existing material. Back in the 18th century, composers oft en did their own pastiches. Handel, for example, would create a new work by taking pieces from five or six operas and stringing them together in a different fashion. He’d call it by a different name and sometimes use a different libretto. Th at’s what we’re doing with Th e Enchanted Island. Jeremy Sams and I, over the last several years, have been choosing music to fit a new text that he wrote. Some of the pieces will be recognizable to people, but there are a few that no one has ever heard at the Met.
Jeremy Sams, Librettist The original idea was from Peter Gelb, who was thinking a lot about Baroque opera. The main thought was to present the gems of a century of music—Handel, Vivaldi, and Rameau all wrote fantastic operas. The first thing I had to do, therefore, was listen to a great deal of music. And my job was to make a story, invent a plot, that these bits of music would lead to. So my first thought was, why not Shakespeare? Everyone knows Shakespeare. And the very first piece I looked at was The Tempest, for the simple reason that there is a version of it called The Tempest, or The Enchanted Island, written by Dryden, and Purcell wrote the music for it. Dryden invented other characters for his Tempest— there’s Sycorax, who is Caliban’s mother. And both Sycorax and Caliban seemed like a good idea to me. I thought Caliban would be a bass, maybe Ariel, who’s a spirit, would be a coloratura soprano. Then I thought Prospero, who’s wise like a shaman, like a teacher—I thought of him like a Buddha almost, and I heard straightaway the countertenor voice. So I said to the people at the Met, “Okay, what I want is the following: I want a big countertenor for Prospero. For Sycorax I want a beautiful lyric soprano or mezzo, and for Ariel a coloratura soprano.” So we started thinking about singers who might be interested in doing this, and the thing started casting itself.
William Christie The Baroque era was the golden age, actually, of the great diva. So one can expect that the people singing in this opera—Joyce DiDonato, Danielle de Niese, David Daniels, Luca Pisaroni, Plácido Domingo—are going to be showing off their wares, so to speak, in an extravagant vocal way.
David Daniels , Prospero As a countertenor, any time I have the opportunity to sing at the Met I am thrilled. It’s not a house that does a ton of that repertoire, and to do a pastiche with these different composers is quite exciting and unusual. I’ve done Handel opera in English, but I’ve never done anything like this—I’m not sure if anyone has! And the team was very generous in letting all of us have suggestions. I have four arias— two are works I suggested and have sung before. It was great to be a part of that process.
Joyce DiDonato, Sycorax I spoke rather passionately about Medea from Handel’s opera Teseo, and I was very happy to see one of her vengeance arias make the cut! But I also trusted fully the instinct of William Christie, who knows my voice quite well. Sycorax will be a huge challenge to play.
Jeremy Sams The more I looked at the story, the more I realized The Tempest doesn’t have any love interest. So I started thinking of other Shakespeare. Maybe Midsummer Night’s Dream would be a better idea, because that’s got fantastic love interest with four protagonists. Then I had an odd inspiration which is this: How about if I combine the two? We’ll start our piece with the four lovers from Midsummer Night’s Dream on their honeymoon, off on a ship, and they get caught in a tempest and land on Prospero’s island.
Phelim McDermott, Director It’s an extraordinary piece of operatic entertainment. Jeremy’s brought together all these different pieces of wonderful music, and he’s done a kind of mash-up of The Tempest and Midsummer Night’s Dream. It’s interesting, because it’s just how these Baroque entertainments were. They would put all this amazing stuff together, masques and different pieces of music. And Jeremy’s gone back to that tradition and created a new story from old stories. So there’s a real opportunity for us to do the traditional things that happen in Baroque entertainment, which is to have spectacular sets and amazing visual, theatrical set pieces.
Julian Crouch, Set Designer Straightaway it seemed that the production wanted a traditional approach, with beautifully painted scenery, layers of flat scenery with false perspective— old-fashioned masque scenery. It’s a lovely place to go to—it’s deliciously literal. You say, “We’re in a forest,” and there really is a painted forest that comes in. The set is a very clear proscenium arch like there would have been back in the Baroque era. On one side, it’s Prospero’s place, with his library and his books and his laboratory. And on the other, wilder side—which is also the other side of the island—is where Sycorax lives and where these creepers come down. Behind that is a series of roots and trees that are very traditional in a Baroque kind of way, the way theater design really was until the last century, with layers of illusionistic flats and beautiful backdrops, beautiful painting, skies, cardboard cut-out seas. Everything you want when you go and see an old opera.
Phelim McDermott There’s that flavor of the old and the new mixed together. Some of the magic will have that slight steampunk thing—it’s not like new science; it’s old science. So if Ariel has to go and visit Neptune, then Ariel has to wear one of those old-fashioned diving helmets. And if there’s machinery happening, it’s that kind of old flavor of cogs and steam.
Julian Crouch We’ve been playing a little bit with the idea of early exploration and those botanical drawings that people would make, that the artists and scientists on the great explorers’ boats would make. We’re playing with engravings of animals, and I’ve been doing hybrids, where I’ll take half of an elephant and join it to the head of an eel. I’m having a bit of fun with that kind of thing.
Jeremy Sams An early decision, which I thought was very bold, was to do the whole thing in English. I was very keen, and so was Peter Gelb, that this piece should be understandable and that nothing should get in the way of the story. It should be clear and approachable and, most importantly, rhymed. So I’ve based it mostly on Dryden and Pope but with no “thee’s” and “thou’s,” only “you” and “yours.” So everything’s understandable and—I hope—entertaining and delightful and charming.
William Christie I think that one of the most important things is this extraordinary element of what the French used to call “le merveilleux.” In this kind of Baroque art, there’s an enchantment. There’s always some extraordinary moment when clouds open up and you have gods and goddesses flying around in the air and hell-mouths… It’s a Walt Disney Fantasia sort of world, you see.
Phelim McDermott I think I would like people to get filled with that impression that, when you’re a child, you imagine theater might be or opera might be or ballet might be. Even if we’re doing bleak, experimental, minimalist work, there’s something that you carry inside you that is like a dream idea of what these art forms are or were or could be or should be. It’s like a little magic potion. I would hope that people can leave with a little bit of that inside them, a little bit of that picture-book magic.
Jeremy Sams Handel wrote about 43 operas, and I’ve listened to every single one of them. The Enchanted Island is my equivalent of sitting down my friends in my front room, getting out my CD collection, and saying, “Listen to this—this is fantastic!” I’m really hoping this piece will turn people onto this music the way it turned me onto this music. That’s the one thing I hope will communicate itself to an audience: a sense of discovery—of people coming to an island, of an audience coming to a theater, of a writer coming to a whole century of music. That idea of coming to something you thought you knew and discovering that you didn’t.
The Enchanted Island opens on December 31.