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Mark Morris and Neal Goren's "L'Isola Disabitata"

by Lori Ortiz
February 18, 2009
Gerald Lynch Theater at John Jay College
899 10th Avenue
New York, NY 10019
(212) 237-8000
Gotham Chamber Opera
February 18-28th
It would have been difficult to attend the Gotham Chamber Opera and Mark Morris's production of "L'Isola Disabitata" (Joseph Haydn's 1779 "Desert Island") without having a good time. The music is not well known, but this ninety-minute production is a good one to start with if you are new to opera. It invokes a lonely but paradisiacal Greece. Opening night February 18, 2009 was blustery and bustling in Hell's Kitchen, New York City.

Though this is not a danced opera, Mark Morris's direction fleshes out the irony and humor in Pietro Metastasio's already witty libretto. Morris's modernity and musicality is everywhere evident. The opera singers pedestrian movements have meaning. The divas do not stand facing us with their hands clasped in front of their chests.

The set by Allen Moyer is a simple round cliff structure, hollow inside, and possibly ten feet in diameter. The production all takes place on this rocky encampment. Characters disappear into its cave, or approach from the water outside. The set piece can turn and along with Michael Chybowski's lighting, it plays a crucial role in the story of island inhabitance. Most interesting, for its mystery, is a row of footlights limning the perimeter of the stage floor. The lights raise during the performance, suggesting harbour lights, and they help buoy a final, dizzying, enthralling, denouement.

Talk about performing on a raked stage! This is xtreme for the four characters. They sublimate elemental life in this small, severely inclined, area. Part of the marvel is "L'Isola's" uncomplicated feeling. Takesha Meshe Kizart takes on the challenge of depressed Costanza, who thinks her husband left her and her baby sister stranded on the desert island.

Understandably, Costanza brings a dark under layer that makes us shift uncomfortably in our seats. Her first aria releases anger but the uplift is not immediate. Lighter, is the coming of age tale of thirteen-year-old Sylvia, played by Valerie Ogbonnaya. Her appealing character steals the show, even if the cast's every move and breath is right.
The child has never left the island. She is innocent but also inherited her mother's mistrust of men. Gernando (Vale Rideout) had not actually left Costanza but was absconded by pirates, she finds out on his return.

Both women wear ostensibly homemade grass costumes by Elizabeth Kurtzman, which accentuate Sylvia's sprightliness and Costanza's immobility. The returning men wear silk skirts tied around or below the waist. Tom Corbeil is Gernando's young friend Enrico. His costume allows us to experience the physicality of song; it reveals the singer's muscles working to emit the sound—the body as musical instrument.

The invisible orchestra playing in the pit and conductor Goren (who takes a bow onstage at the end,) carried the narrative with simple perfection. Strings accompany the recitations. Finally, an exuberant polyphony of the four voices in harmony and the fine twenty-four-piece orchestra. Very lively, but not fiery.

Costanza's depression tamped down her deeply felt initial aria. If no one performance was hair-raising or chilling, the strength of this is the collaboration of extraordinary artists, which yielded awesome results. A well chosen Lisa Yuskavage painting on the program cover matches the contemporary telling of this baroque tale. Inside the program are Kurtzman's colorful costume sketches.

It turns into a story of reversed fortune and renewed faith in humanity. The heaviness of having thought the worst becomes the weightlessness of unfounded suspicion.
Takesha Meshé Kizart, Tom Corbeil, Valerie Ogbonnaya, Vale Rideout

Takesha Meshé Kizart, Tom Corbeil, Valerie Ogbonnaya, Vale Rideout

Photo © & courtesy of Richard Termine


Valerie Ogbonnaya, Vale Rideout, Tom Corbeil

Valerie Ogbonnaya, Vale Rideout, Tom Corbeil

Photo © & courtesy of Richard Termine


Valerie Ogbonnaya

Valerie Ogbonnaya

Photo © & courtesy of Richard Termine


Vale Rideout, Takesha Meshé Kizart, Tom Corbeil, Valerie Ogbonnaya

Vale Rideout, Takesha Meshé Kizart, Tom Corbeil, Valerie Ogbonnaya

Photo © & courtesy of Richard Termine

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