American Classical Orchestra (ACO) presented a lightly staged concert version of Haydn’s personal favorite opera “L’isola Disabitata” at Alice Tully Hall on February 23. Written in 1779, this opera is in the Baroque style but is on the razor’s edge of the Classical era. Pietro Metastasio’s libretto is full of vigor, drama, and pathos and it was a romp of an evening.
This concert version weighed in at a trim 90 minutes, with no intermission, and with cuts so subtle, it’s hard to imagine what wasn’t there. Cynthia Edwards’ easy breezy staging was Gilbert and Sullivan meets “Gilligan’s Island.” Image a young newly married Thurston and Lovey on their honeymoon cruise. She gets a bit seasick, and he thoughtfully pulls in at the most convenient island, so that she and her sister may recuperate. Then Fate and cruel circumstance separate them for years, leaving each with a false idea of what happened to the other.
Costanza, soprano Sarah Brailey, and her sister Silvia, soprano Sherezade Panthaki, are stranded on the deserted island. Costanza has bided her time in bitter contemplation of the perfidy of man in the form of Gernando, tenor Owen McIntosh. He left her and she has composed an appropriate epitaph to the death of her love by scribing words on a boulder with her stiletto heel and a stone. Clever, bitter woman! Her sister has made friends with the flora, and especially the fauna, in the form of a young fawn, who returned to her after she’d thought it lost. Foreshadowing? Happy-go-lucky Silvia tries desperately to woo her sister back to the fun-loving youthful woman she should be, but to no avail. Brailey’s Costanza is as beautifully tragically sad as it’s possible to be. Her voice has lilt and power while her form has the drama of “La Dame aux Camélias.” Panthaki’s Silvia is the gamine foil to her tragedienne sibling. Panthaki is sunlight and youth and, in “Come il vapor s’ascende,” has the best aria in the piece! Her voice ascends effortlessly and with power and makes it exciting to consider what’s to come.
Gernando, tenor McIntosh, has been searching for his Costanza for 13 years. He didn’t strand her on the island intentionally, but was captured by pirates and imprisoned! Ever since his release he’s searched for his Love. His faithful friend Enrico, baritone Timothy McDevitt, has been by his side. Gernando is full of drama himself, clearly an excellent match for Costanza, and when he happens upon Costanza’s unfinished etching, he thinks she must have perished before it was complete. Gernando hurls himself from conclusion to conclusion, as the seas must have tossed the ship on his honeymoon. Enrico does his best to reel him in with varying degrees of success. McIntosh has sparkle and humor in his rich tenor timbre and McDevitt has great gravitas as he is both confidante to Gernando and apologist to the physically found and emotionally lost Costanza. The color and emotion in McDevitt’s voice, as well as his technique, is as delicious to hear as to watch. When the star-crossed couple is reunited, it is as comical as Silvia’s interaction with the first non-sister person she’s ever seen–the dazzling, kind and handsome Enrico. This kitten is smitten and, like the fawn she’s adopted, she’s an adorable wild young thing whom Enrico cannot resist.
Thomas Crawford’s American Classical Orchestra became a character in the winsome finale and the immediacy of a chamber opera in the delightful acoustic space of Alice Tully Hall was absolutely divine. Sitting in the orchestra, just inside the scrim of the balcony, I found the delicacy and tone of the instruments and these four singers a lesson in nuance—not so much the antics of our two Sailors, Deven Kolluri and Sean Stozenthaler, which were the broadest of humor. They literally set the props on the stage and provided much-needed comic relief. These guys are clearly buddies of Luther Billis, from “South Pacific,” as they know where to procure things and they share! All in all, it was a great evening to spend with friends. Whether you’re a fan of Baroque opera or have never seen one before, this was a perfect opportunity to come in from the cold and warm up on Haydn’s Desert Island.
Interested in what’s next for ACO? Visit the orchestra online at www.ACONYC.org