Looking like a Christmas ornament that has come to befuddled life, Placido Domingo lumbers into view at the world premiere on New Year’s Eve of “The Enchanted Island” at the Metropolitan Opera.
He plays Neptune, who in this beguiling production is an aging deity presiding over too much water and too many creatures.
I’ve even lost track of my dolphins, Domingo wails. Humans have polluted my world.
“I’m old, I’m irritable, I’m weary,” the tenor continues, scowling at a visitor who has approached seeking help in finding a vessel bearing passengers who must be shipwrecked to further the plot.
“Go scour the oceans yourself,” Neptune mutters.
High above him, four mermaids wave their tails.
The cheerful scene, inspired by Busby Berkeley, Liberace and Louis XIV, is a high point of this over-the-top baroque-style comedy concocted by the clever British writer Jeremy Sams.
Drawing on Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Sams conjured up a two-act opera set on a mysterious island ruled by Prospero, a twisted magician, who was banished here with his daughter Miranda.
This used to be the happy home of the witch Sycorax, until Prospero stole her sprite Ariel, turned her son Caliban into his slave and forced her into a dark corner of her realm. He also broke her heart.
Understandably, revenge fuels every aria she sings, and there are many.
Where Am I?
All the while, shipwrecked couples come and go searching for their mates, thwarted by magic spells, potions and gargantuan vines.
Those two theater magicians, Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch, who last produced “Satyagraha” at the Met, make the story come alive with rain-pelted little boats and ridiculous encounters.
“How should I know?” sings Hermia to a confused Helena at one point. “I’ve been stuck in a cave.”
Or is Helena singing to Hermia? So many waterlogged divas scrambling along the beach.
Everyone sings ornate arias plucked from works by Handel, Vivaldi, Rameau and lesser composers to fit the situation.
Following olden conventions, these arias are often repeated with more ornaments. Perhaps the program should come with dragon-blood potions to get us through Act I, which is very long.
Famed baroque specialist William Christie helped select the music and conducts the show with expected enthusiasm. He is, after all, the founder of Les Arts Florissant and chief publicist for Lully.
Men in Skirts
If works like “Atys” drive you crazy with their ritual displays of mincing twits in feathered head-toppers and flouncy skirts, you will adore “Island” which is at least intentionally funny.
I especially loved Luca Pisaroni, the sweetly pathetic Caliban, who lurches frequently into view looking for mom or the enchanted Helena.
“We talked and walked for hours, and picked wild flowers. It wasn’t just botany, it was chemistry!” he sobs from underneath his splendid hat after Helen remembers she really loves someone else.
Everyone wears terrific assemblages of feathers, flowers and rococo finery devised by Kevin Pollard and beautifully lit by Brian MacDevitt.
Danielle de Niese dominates the proceedings as a fleet and funny Ariel. Joyce DiDonato brings venomous humor and her fabled technique to Sycorax. David Daniels, a broodingly handsome Prospero, sings a particularly sweet song with a bassoon. There isn’t a loser in the cast.
The show represents a high point for Met General Manager Peter Gelb, who dreamed up the concept and got the right people to make it real.
Now could he wave a wand and summon a new music director to replace the ailing James Levine on this fair isle of Manhattan? Perhaps Ariel could send a boat for someone like that Finnish demigod, Esa-Pekka Salonen?
“The Enchanted Island” was made possible by David G. Knott and Francoise Girard. Additional funding came from Rolex.
(Manuela Hoelterhoff is executive editor of Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)