L’isola disabitata

Feb 23, 2009

Wall Street Journal


Gotham Chamber Opera's production of Haydn's L'isola disabitata (1779) was performed at John Jay College. Haydn's operas are seldom done, and this was the first staged New York City performance of this 90-minute, four-character miniature. Particularly noteworthy was its director: the choreographer Mark Morris, whose past forays into opera production have been built around dance and visual gimmicks. In Orfeo ed Euridice at the Met and King Arthur at City Opera, the singers floundered. The simplicity of L'isola gave Mr. Morris a chance to actually direct, and he did a creditable job.

In L'isola, Costanza has spent 13 years on a desert island, abandoned, she thinks, by her lover, Gernando. Actually, he was abducted by pirates, and as the opera opens, he returns, with his friend Enrico, to find his lost love and her little sister, Silvia. There are various missteps and confusions. Silvia, for example, has been raised to hate and fear all men -- and, of course, has never seen one. But a happy two-couple ending is achieved at last.

Allen Moyer's simple, sculptural set -- a bare rock marooned in the middle of a blacked out stage -- rotated to provide different angles for acting, and it worked splendidly with Michael Chybowski's ingenious lighting. Elizabeth Kurtzman's costumes for the women, suggesting dried grasses, imaginatively underlined their castaway status. Mr. Morris clearly defined each of the characters, and played cleverly with their entrances, exits and juxtapositions around the rock.

The standout singer was soprano Valerie Ogbonnaya, a charmingly innocent Silvia. Takesha Meshé Kizart's dark dramatic soprano brought gravity to Costanza's despair but was a bit out of control in the quicker passages; tenor Vale Rideout was a plausible Gernardo and bass-baritone Tom Corbeil an appealing Enrico (especially since he was wearing only a sarong). The excellent orchestra, conducted by Neal Goren, added spice and interest even when the vocal writing palled, and concertmaster Christopher Lee played the violin solos splendidly.