Our new-style night at the opera took place in a cinema with five-star comfort, drinks being brought as we lounged on our sofas.
Soprano Deborah Voigt was our host on screen, welcoming us to the New York Met where the cameras ranged over the audience, with people waving at us as they were caught in close-up. As the official voice of the Met, Voigt would not only introduce the singers: she would also promote her next show, and invite us to give generously to this worthy enterprise. No mention of the fact that the Met had locked this cinema – and all the others where this event was being broadcast live – into an exclusive deal forbidding them from taking opera from other sources like Covent Garden.
And so to ‘The Enchanted Island’: librettist Jeremy Sams had been commissioned by the Met to take ‘hidden Baroque gems’ and devise a brand-new opera. Thus it was that arias and duets by Handel, Vivaldi, and Rameau were wrenched out of context and strung like washing on a line conflating Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’ and ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’. In Phelim McDermott’s production the stage looked pretty, as computerised effects overlaid quaintly 18century stage machinery, and a duet began between a world-weary Prospero (countertenor David Daniels) and an earthily substantial Ariel (Danielle de Niese). Conducted by William Christie, the music bowled beautifully along; the cameras kept a nice balance between close-ups and panoramas; we were indeed ‘at the opera’.
But what sort of opera? As the gulf widened between the heroic implications of the music – culled from climactic moments in antique tragedies – and the broad comedy of the libretto, it became hard to say. Handel gave his arias space to breathe by interspersing them with recitatives and choruses, but Sams fed us an indigestibly intense diet of climaxes. Occasionally real drama surfaced, as when Joyce DiDonato’s Sycorax comforted her unhappy son Caliban (brilliant Luca Pisaroni), but the fatal disconnect between music and plot ensured that brain and emotion never engaged.
Despite one startling mid-aria loss of the video/audio link, we got some lovely moments – for example, Placido Domingo as an ecologically-worried sea-god - and some gorgeous singing led by Lisette Oropesa as Miranda. But does all this justify mailed-fist cultural imperialism from the Met?