On February 18 at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College, Gotham Chamber Opera presented the first of five performances of Haydn's L'Isola Disabitata. The evening was everything chamber opera should be. Running a lean ninety minutes, it was musically and dramatically involving, simply but imaginatively staged and arrestingly performed. Haydn's score is delicately wrought, with suggestive rather than descriptive musical effects. Before the opera starts, Costanza, her husband, Gernando, and her infant sister Silvia are shipwrecked on an island. Gernando is kidnapped by pirates; Costanza thinks herself abandoned. Flash forward thirteen years, and Costanza has trained Silvia to hate and distrust men, so that when the newly freed Gernando returns to reclaim his beloved, along with his young buddy Enrico, the course of true love runs a little bumpily at first, though all ends happily.
Mark Morris's production was unfussy and uncluttered, allowing him to home in on the relationships and emotional values. Though his trademark playfulness was in evidence, it was restrained, and he allowed the laughs to spring organically from character and situation. He was aided in this by the simple, suggestive set - a raised, raked rock at center stage - as when Enrico, newly arrived, stood alone on it and sang, "It's a small island, we shouldn't get lost." The rock, which moved on a turntable to suggest different vantage points on the island, must have been challenging for the singers, but they navigated its treacherous rise fearlessly, rolling, sitting, climbing and lying around with surprising ease and naturalness. Morris also added an impish postscript, with lightning signaling an oncoming storm as the happy quartet sailed off into the sunset.
Morris and GCO artistic director Neal Goren assembled a quartet of skilled, engaging and dramatically savvy performers. Both sopranos were impressive singing actresses, well contrasted but sharing a clear emotional connection. Takesha Meshé Kizart made a proud, imposing and sensual Costanza, spinning out exquisite long lines in her two extended arias, the first of which was particularly affecting. Valerie Ogbonnaya was a shining, adorable presence as Silvia, and if her singing wasn't always entirely secure, she more than made up for it with a delightfully developed, unforced character, gutsily pulling off the ferocious two-octave leaps in her aria "Come vapor." Tenor Vale Rideout was a passionate Gernando, singing with bright, forward thrust and a fine messa di voce. As Enrico, Tom Corbeil, bravely shirtless, displayed a mellow bass-baritone and an easy, relaxed presence. He was especially amusing adopting a bar stance when he first meets the innocent Silvia, and this tenderly comic courtship scene was particularly charming. The orchestral playing under Goren's baton was elegant and sprightly, marred only occasionally by slightly out-of-tune string playing.