L'isola disabitata, Haydn

Gotham Chamber Opera

25th February 2009

Joseph Haydn’s rarely heard - and more rarely seen - L’isola disabitata (aka “Desert Island”) was on view at the Lynch Theater at John Jay College in a simple, attractive production by Gotham Chamber Opera. Haydn’s operas are not common today on the stage. GCO Artistic Director Neal Goren, in his introductory program notes, explained that both he and the production’s director, Mark Morris, felt that “a reassessment of his [Haydn’s] operas was overdue.”

This desert island is more Gilligan’s Island than Lost. Clocking in at under ninety minutes, there’s just enough time in this operatic amuse bouche for each of four characters to sing one or two da capo arias and then end it together in a final quartet. What happens in the opera? Not much. The premise is this: a woman, Costanza, and her husband, Gernando, were voyaging with an infant, Silvia, when a storm caused them to shipwreck on a desert island. Gernando was subsequently kidnapped from the island by pirates, unbeknownst to Costanza, who assumed he had simply abandoned her. The action begins thirteen years later, when two gentlemen show up on the island and – surprise – one turns out to be the long-lost Gernando and the other a strapping young man named Enrico, who proves an ideal suitor for Silvia.

At best, the libretto, by Metastasio, sets the stage for a bit of musical dessert. Haydn, subsidized by a few exceptionally wealthy members of the Ezterhazy family for whom he worked, was catering to a private aristocratic audience. The mood in the GCO audience was jovial throughout the evening, not unlike guests at a dinner party being treated to a performance between courses.

Richard Termine

The set, a rotating boulder with exit and entrance nooks, creates a visual joke: that the island these women have been habitating for thirteen-plus years is the size of a small New York studio apartment. Adding an absurdist note is the one noticeable prop, a white plastic blow-up doll of a fawn, which is Silvia’s companion throughout the opera. The fawn takes on running-joke status in Mr. Morris’ staging, for better or worse.

One of the hallmarks of Mr. Morris’ choreography for earlier productions (such as his company’s Dido and Aeneas) is his use of musical structure to inform movement, somewhat akin to those computer program-generated “visualizations” of music that respond to pulse, dynamics, and texture. There were few dance moments in L’isola; mainly Mr. Morris restricted himself to bland-ish “traditional” staging.

Mr. Goren assembled a fine cast; the evening’s most exciting performance, that of Takesha Meshé Kizart’s Costanza, was also the most uneven. Ms. Kizart has generated considerable buzz of late; the sweet spot of her voice (above the staff) merits that attention. She was neither particularly stylistic nor interesting in her recitatives, but when her arias called for high notes, the results were meltingly beautiful. I would love to hear Ms. Kizart in other, more Romantic repertoire, which I venture to guess will be the focus of her career. Her voice is not large in the middle, and, like Ms. Fleming, another soprano with stunningly round high notes, the voice seems built around the top rather than evenly up and down the scale.

Costanza’s long-lost husband Gernando was played by tenor Vale Rideout, who sang attractively and stylishly throughout and generated some of the opera’s most honest and beautiful vocal moments. Gernando’s companion, Enrico, was sung with less polish by bass-baritone Tom Corbeil. Mr. Corbeil’s voice is sturdy but gripped, resulting in high notes that are pinched and sometimes fail altogether as they did occasionally on this evening. The soprano Valerie Ogbonnaya offered ample charm and pluck, but not a lot of voice, in the role of Silvia.

The Gotham orchestra suffered from ensemble problems from the very first. The overture features a three-note figure that ascends then plunges dramatically; not once did the strings land in unison after the latter interval. Throughout the opera, group entrances were made scatter-shot. The one shining moment for the instruments occurred in the orchestral solos in the opera’s finale.

L’isola is ultimately a trifling farce about the battle (and reconciliation) between the sexes. For the opera’s final quartet, Mr. Morris gave into his choreographic roots and provided each character a series of gestures to accompany their text—like charades, but not quite so literal. At this point, both the performers and the audience seemed to breathe a sigh of pleasure. In effect, this moment acknowledged that the whole work was a joke, nothing serious. Why not? In the end, this is what we were left with: a little silliness. Haydn operas always make me long to hear Mozart. I can’t say that this evening changed my mind, but it was a perfectly pleasant way to spend an hour and a half.


John Costello