This article was written by the wonderful Ray Wofsy
2/18/09- Joseph Haydn’s L’isola disabitata (Desert Island) opens with two sisters, Costanza and Silvia, marooned on a deserted island. They immediately draw you into their isolated existence with their gorgeous voices, dramatic lyrics, and the accompaniment of the orchestra. From the way that they describe their hatred of men, the audience knows it is only a matter of time before men will arrive on their island paradise/prison…
This Gotham Chamber Opera collaboration with Mark Morris broke my operatic expectations in more ways than one. I had come expecting a traditional tale of love, heartbreak, and reconciliation, but found that this piece pushed those boundaries in exciting ways. As with all art, the audience can take from it whatever they want, and I’m sure that people left with a wide range of interpretations. Some might have departed thinking that this was a beautiful story of love, others that it was two-dimensional and cliché , but I left thinking that it showed the beauty of love, while simultaneously poking fun at romance. Comic moments punctuated the tragic and romantic scenes, keeping the audience laughing and seeming to point to the following notion: love is true, but it is also funny and perhaps formulaic. I was impressed that this opera was so arresting, but at the same time did not seem to take itself too seriously.
There were other surprises in the production. Considering Mark Morris’s fame and success as a choreographer (he formed the Mark Morris Dance Group in 1980, has worked extensively in opera and ballet and won many awards), there was not a lot of dance in this piece. The singers did use their movements to create drama and beauty within the sparse set, but the focus seemed to be much more on their lyrics and facial expressions than on their body language. A more positive surprise was that two of the four actors cast in this 1779 traditional Italian opera were African American. Admittedly, I have not been to the opera since I was seven years old and living in Boston, but this was a refreshing change from the all-white casts I have seen in my limited operatic experiences. I was also pleased that the Italian lyrics were translated and projected in English above the stage. This helped me follow what was happening but was also easily ignored when I wanted to just be absorbed in the drama unfolding on the stage.
In the end, I can think of no way I would have rather spent a cold, rainy February night than at L’isola disabitata. This piece’s exploration of love, friendship, heartbreak, and different ways of viewing the world continues to be inspiring and thought provoking more than two hundred years after it was written. Was the island a paradise? A prison? Was love the savior? The comic relief? The singers, artists, orchestra, and directors deserve credit for making this play so striking. I only hope that I, like this play, can continue to laugh through the seriousness of life and love.