L’isola disabitata

Feb 17, 2009

Classics Today

Robert Levine

What a delicious surprise! Neal Goren and his classy Gotham Chamber Opera struck gold at the end of February at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College in New York with Franz Josef Haydn’s L’isola disabitata. A 90 minute, four character opera that was premiered in 1779, it makes one realize how good it must have been to be an Esterhazy. The desert island of the title is the setting: 13 years before the action begins, Gernando, his wife Costanza and her infant sister Silvia were shipwrecked. Gernando went to look for help but was kidnapped by pirates. Costanza, believing that Gernando abandoned her, has grown bitter, and has raised Silvia to hate and fear men. Suddenly, Gernando, accompanied by his friend, Enrico, both of whom have just escaped from the pirates, arrive on the island, and begin searching for the two women – or what may be left of them. Silvia spots Enrico, is oddly fascinated and terrified, and little by little, misunderstandings are untangled, Costanza and Gernando are happy again, Silvia “discovers” men and Enrico finds an enchanting young bride.

A delightful, uncategorizable opera – neither buffa nor seria but filled with both humor and pathos – brief, to the point, splendidly orchestrated with a full complement of winds (flute, oboes, French horns, bassoon) and strings, “L’isola...” starts with a tripartite overture in Haydn’s best Sturm-und-Drang style. About half the opera is accompanied recitative but the entire orchestra is used and boredom never sets in. Recit turns to arioso frequently as the dramatic situation warrants and it’s occasionally hard to tell when exposition has ended and a full-fledged aria has begun. The characters’ feelings, often mixed and confused, just as often direct, are vividly expressed in both aria and recit.

Allen Moyer’s setting – a big, rotating, oddly-shaped rock – perfectly suit the situation, and Mark Morris’s witty but restrained direction, with the characters just missing one another, hiding in a cave, spying on one-another secretly, eventually coming face to face, has the limber cast climbing the rock like mountain goats; only in the final quartet do they move like dancers. Elizabeth Kurtzman’s spare-to-say-the-least costumes (grass skirts and tops for the women; sarong-like clothing for the men), are a pleasure.

Kudos to conductor Neal Goren, his good-looking cast and sprightly, excellent orchestra: Costanza, normally a mezzo role, was taken by award winning soprano Takesha Meshé Kizart. She acts well, and has little trouble with the heights, depths, leaps and roulades of the role and its embellishments. One felt there were reserves of power in her dark hued, dramatic voice. Valerie Ogbonnaya is adorable and perky as Silvia, her voice larger-than-soubrette and pinpoint accurate. Vale Rideout’s lithe tenor brings real pathos to Gernando’s laments and enthusiasm to his newfound happiness, and bass-baritone Tom Corbeil, bare-chested throughout (and dubbed, immediately, a “barihunk”) uses his dark, agile voice impressively as Enrico. The opera ends with a glorious 12-minute ensemble – the only one in the piece – in which each character first sings separately and is followed with instrumental interludes featuring, alternately, well-played obbligato violin, cello, flute and, bassoon. The singers then join in duets, and finally, a joyous quartet.

Uncomplicated but not emotionally simplistic, free of chorus, dancers, and extraneous characters and constructed as an unending situation that must be resolved (and observing the Aristotelian unities) L’isola was Haydn’s favorite among his own operas. It is easy to see why.