Back in the 18th century, before the concept of copyright existed, composers regularly borrowed from one another, adapting music for their own purposes out of flattery or practical necessity. Handel in particular felt free to use others’ music with his own words. This practice was known as pastiche or pasticcio, but died out with the rise of the composer as the master of his own works. On New Year’s Eve 2011, the Metropolitan Opera launched The Enchanted Island, an entirely new pastiche devised by Jeremy Sams, who wrote a new English libretto to music by Vivaldi, Handel, Rameau, Purcell and others. 

The Met spared no expense in creating a lavish production by Phelim McDermott, designed by Julian Crouch, with scenery that combines painted set pieces with the most up-to-date video projections, and Kevin Pollard’s dazzling costume designs. Early music specialist William Christie conducted the Met Orchestra in stylish baroque playing. The cast includes established Met stars David Daniels, Joyce DiDonato and Plácido Domingo (in a cameo appearance as King Neptune), along with rising younger singers, Danielle de Niese, Luca Pisaroni, Elizabeth DeShong, Paul Appleby, Elliot Madore and Anthony Roth Costanzo.

Just as the music is a mish-mash of various composers, the original, and very complicated, libretto by Jeremy Sams is a conflation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Prospero (Daniels), Miranda (soprano Lisette Oropesa), Ariel (DiDonato), Caliban (Pisaroni, in grotesque costume and makeup) and Caliban’s mother Sycorax (DiDonato) are stranded on the enchanted island, but through Ariel’s error, the survivors of the shipwreck who end up on Prospero’s island are the quartet of lovers from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Helena (soprano Layla Claire), Hermia (DeShong), Demetrius (Appleby), and Lysander (Madore). Prospero and Miranda were, however, expecting Ferdinand and the people of Naples. Confusion and hilarity ensue, with elements from the plots of both plays – Ariel here plays an analogous comic role to the character Puck in Dream – and the traditional operatic device of deus ex machina in the person of Neptune (with Mr Domingo’s heavily accented English, clearly from the Spanish part of the sea), straightening things out in the end.

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What better music for Neptune to make his appearance than Handel’s coronation anthem Zadok the Priest, in a production number so over the top, including among other features four flying mermaids, as to put 1930s filmmaker Busby Berkeley to shame. Ariel’s magic assures that Ferdinand (the boyish and sweet-voiced countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo) arrives from Naples, not only to pardon Prospero, but to fall instantly in love with Miranda. A chorus of general rejoicing ends the opera.

There are also scenes of introspection and quiet. At the close of Act I David Daniels’ Prospero sings of his failures; and, especially touching, Sycorax comforts Caliban’s broken heart after the spell she had cast causing Helena to fall in love with her son wears off, and Helena spurns Caliban. Joyce DiDonato and Luca Pisaroni as Sycorax’s little boy are remarkable. The singing and playing throughout are spectacular. There is not a weak link in the cast. One could ask, however, why all these resources were spent on this bit of operatic trivia rather than a “real” opera? In many cases throughout, the text – which barely rises above doggerel – is ungracefully shoehorned into magnificent music. But in the end, one realizes that the point of this production is entertainment, intended to amuse and delight, both of which this performance accomplishes in its music and stagecraft.