February 5th, 2012

La Loge

Manner vs Matter: War Horse and The Enchanted Island

Last week, in the company of a good friend from out of town and her mother, we went to Lincoln Center twice.  Once to see War Horse at the Vivian Beaumont, and once to the Metropolitan Opera for The Enchanted Island.

You'd think, wouldn't you, that the two performances couldn't have been more different.  War Horse is a play about a horse and his boy, WWI, and trench warfare, full of barbed wire, gritty realism, and amazing full-sized horse puppets.  The Enchanted Island is a  retrofit Baroque opera which borrows its music from the likes of Handel, Vivaldi, Rameau and its plot (such as it is) from The Tempest and A Midsummer Night's Dream.  It's a glorious muddle of mis-matched lovers (including Caliban and Hermia) and anti-colonial sentiment, and includes such gems as a scene set in the Court of Posidon, a counter-tenor Prospero, and a big part for the witch Sycorax.  Nothing at all in common, right (except maybe being at Lincoln Center)?  Wrong.  At bottom, these two theatrical experiences are actually quite similar.  Both are highly mannered and theatrical; both are nostalgic; both depend for their greatest effects on theatrical magic rather than individual performances.  Both are highly entertaining, but not very emotionally profound.

I noticed this most with War Horse.  I don't mean to say I wasn't affected--the staging of Act II in particular was remarkable, and the characters of the Good German cavalry officer who trades his sword for a dead medic's red-crossed coat and cap and the French family he befriends (with the help of the titular horse Joey) are truly engaging.  But I couldn't help but notice that quite a lot of my reaction was to the puppets and the music (mostly contemporary to WWI, or Devon traditional--very lovely) and the remarkable animated pencil drawings projected onto a banner that looked like a piece of paper torn from a sketchbook, which helped to set the scenes. The actions and emotions of the merely human actors get swallowed up by the special effects and the huge, semi-circular Beaumont stage. I found the actor who plays Ted, the boy who trains and follows Joey to war, a whole lot less convincing than Joey himself, despite the puppet's eight legs and head-holder.  But that could also be the result of having to transpose the point of view from the horse to the people surrounding him.  I don't know.  In any rate, I didn't like the play itself nearly as much as I liked the production.  It wasn't silly; it wasn't offensive or stupid or BAD.  It was just kind of . . . undistinguished.  B work.  Nothing wrong, nothing transcendently right.

Still well worth seeing, though.  Those projected pencil drawings are almost as prime as Joey and Topthorn.  Oh, and the trenches.  The trenches were remarkable.

But not as remarkable as the scene in Poseidon's court in The Enchanted Island.  Picture Placido Domingo in ice-blue and silver Classical Armor, a natty little beard, and a splendid shimmery velvet cloak, sitting on a seashell throne, with three mermaids suspended above him and the entire chorus of the Metropolitan opera, done up in High Baroque finery and languidly waving their arms in counterpoint to the music (which I suspect might be Handel, but my Baroque is rusty).  The scene lasts maybe 20-25 minutes, with those poor suspended mermaids waving away the whole time, looking just a little ridiculous.

But then, the whole thing is a little ridiculous.  It's supposed to be.  Caliban is made up like KISS, for pete's sake.  The Midsummer lovers (shipwrecked while on their double honeymoon) appear in artfully deconstructed 18th C. costumes.  Storms and magic are created courtesy of the magic of digital projection and lighting.  Ariel's magic put me strongly in mind of Tinkerbell's little sparks of light.  And the fix-up plot, full of thefts of dragon's blood and love potions that sometimes work and sometimes don't and Sycorax vowing revenge and Ariel seeking help from Poseidon to find Ferdinand and Caliban looking for love in all the wrong places, and the deus ex machina ending, in which Poseidon scolds Prospero for doing to Sycorax what his evil brother did to him, isn't really supposed to make sense.

But this is opera, and Baroque opera at that.  The music is really all about the arias, which are sung by individuals.  Prospero (sung by countertenor David Daniels) is disconcertingly sweet-voiced and gentle, even when he is mixing down with Sycorax (Joyce DiDonato), who basically wipes the stage with him, vocally, morally, and sartorially.  Lucas Pisaroni makes Caliban a sweetly angsty emo-monster, and Lisette Oropesa as Miranda looked every bit as wide-eyed and clueless as her music suggested she was.  It was all a lot of fun, and should bring in the punters a new and wider audience.  I enjoyed it a lot.  The three hours it took really, truly sped by.  I love Baroque music to bits, and the staging and direction and everything were A+ work.  But it never really touched my soul.