We may not always like it, but Shakespeare fans get used to producers and directors trying to come up with ways to put a modernized spin on our old favorite plays. I’ve seen Henry V set in an urban playground, Much Ado populated by Gibson Girls and guys in boater hats playing ukuleles and The Tempest buzzed by a real helicopter, with a sumo wrestler portraying Ariel. But two Shakespeare plays mushed up together into one narrative? That’s where a lot of us would draw the line.
Opera fans, by contrast, have been listening to mashups of the works of their favorite composers for centuries. “The operatic pastiche…arose in the mid-17th century from practical need,” wrote Cori Ellison in a December 2011 preview in The New York Times of the Metropolitan Opera’s premiere of The Enchanted Island. “In that singer-dominated era, virtually all revivals were subject to major overhauls to accommodate new casts, and it was easier and cheaper to let singers substitute arias they already knew than to hire composers to write new ones.”
Ellison called the new work “a Franken-opera formed from the severed limbs of other operas…created by the likes of Handel and Vivaldi.” “They all did it,” she quotes Baroque specialist William Christie, who will conduct The Enchanted Island. “Handel did it every day of his life. The idea of plagiarism just didn’t exist. The point was to do it well.” The Enchanted Island showcases arias and ensembles by Handel, Vivaldi, Rameau and others, with a new libretto by Jeremy Sams that translates all the songs sourced in various languages into English.
All well and good; but what about the story premise, which Ellison tags as “Shakespearean fan fiction”? Can we stomach the idea that Helena and Hermia, Demetrius and Lysander – the baffled, squabbling young lovers of A Midsummer Night’s Dream – have washed up on Prospero’s magical isle, along with the rest of the characters shipwrecked by The Tempest? Isn’t it a bit of a comedown for the noble sprite Ariel to resort to the buffoonery of fellow mythical being Puck?
The folks at the Met don’t stop there at taking liberties with the intent of the Bard. Sycorax, Caliban’s hag mother, only gets a brief mention from Shakespeare; but in The Enchanted Island, she has become a lead role, voiced in the new production by Joyce Di Donato. Another change, introducing the character of Poseidon as a sort of narrator/chorus, allowed the casting coup of bringing Plácido Domingo himself on board as a literal deus ex machina: “the first time I play a god” in 43 years at the Met, says the mega-star. Also featured are David Daniels as Prospero, Danielle de Niese as Ariel, Luca Pisaroni as Caliban, Lisette Oropesa as Miranda and Anthony Roth Costanzo as Ferdinand. The premiere production is directed and designed by Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch, the minds behind the Met’s previous hit Satyagraha.
If this “sea-change/into something rich and strange” sounds like your cup of tea, you can catch it in high-definition on the big screen in Poughkeepsie this Saturday, January 21 at 1 p.m., as part of the Bardavon 1869 Opera House’s ongoing series of simulcasts from The Met: Live in HD’s 2011/12 season. Tickets go for $23 general admission, $21 for Bardavon members, and $16 for children aged 12 and under. You can obtain them at the Bardavon box office, located at 35 Market Street in Poughkeepsie, (845) 473-2072; at the UPAC box office at 602 Broadway in Kingston, (845) 339-6088; or through TicketMaster at (800) 745-3000 or www.ticketmaster.com. Visit www.bardavon.org for additional information.