Male protagonists in opera must often defeat rivals to woo a woman. But only in Haydn’s romantic comedy L’Isola Disabitata (Desert Island) does an ardent suitor have to compete with a pet fawn to win his beloved’s attention.
The fawn was represented by a blowup toy in Mark Morris’s witty production for the Gotham Chamber Opera, which opened on Wednesday in the Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College in honor of the bicentennial of Haydn’s death.
Haydn’s oratorios and Masses are often performed, but most of his 14 surviving operas are presented rarely. The Gotham company specializes in seldom-staged works composed for intimate spaces, like L’Isola Disabitata, which had its premiere in 1779 at the 400-seat theater in the Esterhazy Palace, where the composer worked for many years.
L’Isola (said to be Haydn’s favorite of his operas) has a libretto by Pietro Metastasio. The newlywed Costanza is shipwrecked on an island with her husband, Gernando, and Silvia (her sister — whom she brainwashes into hating men). Gernando is kidnapped by pirates, but Costanza thinks she has been abandoned. The action takes place 13 years later, when Gernando arrives with his friend Enrico. Silvia and Enrico fall in love, and the estranged couple are reunited.
Allen Moyer’s set consists of a rather clunky rotating island upon which the cast scampered and swooned, the two men dressed in sarongs and the women in skimpy Flintstone-like cave wear. The successful comic touches included Silvia’s antics with her pet fawn. Costanza carved mournful island graffiti and moped Ariadne-like near her cave. At other times Mr. Morris’s direction left the singers seemingly ill at ease and somewhat restricted as they clambered over the set.
Neal Goren, Gotham’s artistic director, conducted a lively reading of the colorful score, which opens with a dramatic overture (published separately during Haydn’s lifetime) that reflects the Sturm und Drang style of his symphonies. A Sinfonia concertante (with solos for violin, cello, flute and bassoon) and a vocal quartet (the only ensemble number) herald the end of the opera. The recitatives are accompanied by the orchestra, not the harpsichord, as was traditional in the Baroque and early Classical period.
The standout in the cast of four was the soprano Takesha Meshé Kizart, who sang with an expressive, honeyed voice and poignantly conveyed Costanza’s heartache. Mr. Goren substituted Costanza’s doleful opening aria with a more substantive and virtuosic concert aria Haydn wrote for insertion into an opera by Giovanni Paisiello. Most of the arias in L’isola lack coloratura fireworks, however.
The other three singers were less secure vocally. As Silvia, the bright-voiced soprano Valerie Ogbonnaya’s apt comic timing garnered plenty of laughs, particularly when she discovered that Gernando (convincingly portrayed by the tenor Vale Rideout) and Enrico belonged to the odious male species. And there was amusing chemistry between Silvia and Enrico, sung by the able bass baritone Tom Corbeil. He distracts her from her fawn — which is tossed into the water as the happy foursome leave the island together.