The Making of The Enchanted Island | Program Note by Jeremy Sams
The Music of The Enchanted Island 

 

Looking back over this one it’s hard to recall which came first—the words, the music, the story, the cast…? All those factors influenced each of the others at some time or other. The one thing certain is that the original idea came from Peter Gelb. "Imagine," he said, "taking the hidden gems from a century of music, and turning them into one opera. Oh, and it has to be in English." That was the genesis, and like the best of them it culminated (for me at least) in revelations. I embarked on a very eclectic listening regime. I knew my Handel—at least I thought I did, but I now started listening to everything in growing amazement. I was reminded of what George Bernard Shaw wrote about a revelatory Beethoven performance, "I did with my ears what I do with my eyes when they stare." The operas, more than 40 of them, are stuffed with wonders. The oratorios are every bit as dramatic. Most revelatory to me was the Handel of the early Italian cantatas, and of youthful masterpieces like The Triumph of Time and The Resurrection, where we see an already fully-formed genius spreading his wings. Handel is above all a theater man to his fingertips. Even the Coronation Anthems (I allowed myself a ridiculously famous one—but Domingo’s entrance seemed to demand it) are every bit as theatrical as his magical operas.

After Handel came Vivaldi, who, thanks to some remarkable recent recordings, is now very much on the operatic map. If he perhaps can’t match Handel’s range (who can?), he has an aching lyricism and above all a kinetic energy, a virile oomph unrivaled by any of his contemporaries. He weighs in with nine arias in The Enchanted Island. I could have included 20 more.

The other main strand of my listening was the French Baroque. Here again we find a host of theater folk. Not just Lully and Charpentier (neither of whom made the cut), but above all Rameau. Rameau is simply astonishing. Rarely does old music sound so modern. As eccentric as Berlioz, he came to opera even later in his life than Janáček and wrote the best ballet music before Tchaikovsky, some may say before Stravinsky. My Act II "dream ballet" (Enchanted Island is indebted here, as often elsewhere, to Broadway precedent) is mostly Rameau. Rameau’s operas themselves are direct descendants of a weird and wonderful school of French cantatas (notably by Leclair), in which sorceresses and incantations abound, and it was becoming increasingly clear that my story was going to need both.

So, to the story. My thinking was, simply put, that a new take on old music needs a new take on an old story. It’s hard (at least for me) to think of stories without thinking of Shakespeare—and it was listening to Purcell that first brought The Tempest to mind. Dryden’s version, with music by Purcell, was indeed called The Enchanted Island, a title too good to miss. Dryden, though, had spotted that a desert island is going, by definition, to be slightly devoid of love interest, and love is what fuels the aria-making machine that is Baroque opera. Someone falls in love… Aria. Someone looks on… Jealousy Aria. Someone is deceived… Aria of Rage. Love drives the bus. Dryden’s addition of a boy-mad sister to Miranda wasn’t too inspiring. But his fleshing out of the sorceress Sycorax—Caliban’s mother and Ariel’s former mistress—was too good not to steal. It wasn’t too much of a stretch to imagine her seduced, spurned, and then banished by Prospero to the dark side of the island. He steals her land, her son, her servant, her heart—all useful motives for revenge, and the Revenge Aria (we have a cracker in Act I), not to mention reconciliation and the Forgiveness Aria (ditto in Act II). Still, the lack of a love interest remained. The aria machine was demanding more fuel. My back-up choice of Shakespeare play was always A Midsummer Night’s Dream, mostly for its four intertwining lovers, with their four voice types (they re-appear, you’ll notice, in Così fan tutte, in The Gondoliers, even, mutatis mutandis, in Sondheim’s Follies). I was getting character envy. So I thought, let’s mix them up and see where the story takes us. Lysander and Demetrius are maybe accompanying their wives on a post-play honeymoon cruise, when they get caught up in Ariel’s tempest. Why did he zap the wrong ship? Because Sycorax corrupted the spell. Maybe she then tries to ensure the future of her island by helping Helena to fall for Caliban. Miranda, aided by the increasingly incompetent Ariel (most Puck-like in his haplessness) can fall in love, with equal fervor, with Demetrius and Lysander. Lest things get too complicated, I could hide Hermia in a cave until Act II. It was sort of writing itself.

Which brings me to casting. As soon as I thought of The Tempest I was hearing voices. Prospero—numinous, shamanic—could only be a countertenor. Spritely Ariel, a coloratura soprano. Caliban, a bass. Sycorax, a dramatic mezzo. Miranda, a lyric soprano. At the same time, the Met was planning the season, and their wish list was remarkably congruent with my needs. David Daniels, Danielle de Niese, Luca Pisaroni, Joyce DiDonato, and Lisette Oropesa were free and interested, and I was starting to feel like a greedy kid in a candy store.

Then came Plácido Domingo. Peter invited him to join the production and asked if I could create a role for him. Could I? Thus the role of Neptune was born. And very handy he proved for plot purposes. A god (Domingo has, amazingly, never played one) can always galvanize events, and put wrongs to right. I always wanted the characters to go on a journey, and Neptune is no exception. He starts depressed and irritable—his powers are waning, his oceans polluted—but he rediscovers his mojo, as it were, and intervenes in the affairs of men. His is the climax of Act I, an astonishing Handel scena (from Tamerlano) that segues into some epic helden-Rameau.

By now music and story were informing each other. A ravishing sleep aria from Vivaldi’s Tito Manlio demanded to be included, so I wrote a sleep scene to justify it. Similarly, the artists, now cast, had music they very much wanted to sing. (Interestingly, Vivaldi was high on everyone’s list of preferences.) I was only too happy to bend the story to lead to the preferred arias. By this stage, also, missing jigsaw pieces, all dictated by the story, were being identified. I would contact our maestro, William Christie, and Yale’s Ellen Rosand (fount of knowledge on all things Baroque) and ask questions like, "Is there a fast trio for baritone, tenor, and soprano, in which the woman is impervious to male wooing?" (Yes, in Handel’s Susanna). Is there a mixed quartet that might sound like two couples waking up? (Yes again, in Vivaldi’s La Verità in Cimento.) Does anyone know a Baroque sextet? (No, so I fashioned one out of an early Handel quartet.) And so it continued…

…until the present day. Our director Phelim McDermott workshopped the piece last year, Broadway style, to see if it would stand up. It was surprisingly firm on its feet, but far from finished. Numbers were abandoned, others replaced, as I began to apply final coats of paint—to make sure that contrasting numbers flowed into each other and, most importantly, that the music should seem a symptom of the story rather than a cause. That work is, at the time of this writing, continuing. Staging necessarily has its musical implications. Each of the roles is written for the artists who are creating them, and it is a luxury to have the input of a room full of world-class talent. And to watch sets, lights, orchestra, chorus, costumes, everything, arriving at the feast.

I still feel like that greedy kid in the candy store—and I’m getting fatter daily. —Jeremy Sams


This program note was first published online and in the Met's Playbill in Decemer 2011.