Saturday, May 30, 2009

ENCHANTED ISLE

Much in the vein of every musical biography ever presented, ENCHANTED ISLE (1935) by Marion Wakeman and Ira Wilson presents little bit of fictional history regarding Frederic Chopin's visit to the island of Mallorca in 1836.

Okay, history first. Chopin did indeed travel to Mallorca, when he was twenty-six. While there, he wrte some of his most famous works, such as the first concerto in E minor op. 11. But that's about as far as history goes in ENCHANTED ISLE.

Instead, this little piece begins with the happy villagers doing their happy villager thing: mending fishing nets, weaving baskets, and other "homely tasks". Their benign happiness at how pretty the day is is interrupted by the return of Ramon, Juan, and the rest of the boys from the big city of Palma, where they apparently partied pretty hard with the local girls... much to the distress of Elena, who's in love with Ramon, and the undisguised jealousy of Maria, who's in love with Juan. But more importantly, Ramon has brought back a letter for Elena's father, telling him someone named Chopin is coming to stay at their inn... and that he's arriving — today!

No sooner have they brushed things up a bit than Chopin's boat arrives. The man himself is frail and a bit sickly from the voyage: he hopes that his stay on Mallorca will remedy whatever's wrong with him before he has to return to Paris. But Ramon certainly doesnt take well to Elena's sudden interest in this foreigner, particularly when Chopin offers to sponsor Elena's singing career. Things are getting tense as the curtain falls...

In the next scene, it's three months later. Chopin's piano has arrived, Elena is entranced by descriptions of life in Paris, and Ramon shows up with a new boat — not for fishing, however. It turns out that he's gone into smuggling. He's delighted that he's now going to make enough money to fnally marry Elena... but suddenly she's not so interested in him anymore. Ramon thinks she's fallen for Chopin, but that's not entirely the case: she wants to try her wings at this singing thing, and she wants to do it big-time... in Paris.

Ramon is devastated, but Elena tries to assure him that she's only doing it for them. But her own happiness is short-lived when Chopin tells her he's decided against taking her to Paris... not because she cant sing well enough, but he's afraid Paris will corrupt her. She leaves in tears, and Chopin realizes that not only is she in love with the idea of being a famous singer, she's in love with him as well -- and he knows that cant work. After all, she's so young and he's so old (at twnety six!). He doesnt want to stand between her and Ramon's happiness, so he decides to cut out quick and asks Ramon to take him to Palma, where he'll take a boat headed for France. He says his goodbyes to Elena and her parents, then Ramon tells Elena he's off to Palma... to stay. But that too turns out to be a bit of red herring, because he's not, and they're getting married (he and Elena, that is, not he and Chopin), and everyone sings about their enchanted isle, and the curtain falls.

If anything is working for ENCHANTED ISLE, it's, of course, Chopin's music, which has been lightly edited and slightly re-arranged to serve the vacuous — and, at times, downright purple — lyrics:

Star of the sailor, guide once more
To this enchanted peaceful shore
Fair haven of dreams
Brightly it gleams
Mid waters blue
We gladly will share
All of its charm with you

ENCHANTED ISLE isnt the only operetta that appropriated music from a famous composer, but it's arguably one of the thinest in terms of plot. Chopin is little more than a big city boy who's decided to go native for a while, and Elena and Ramon are barely a step above Spanish hillbillies with great voices. Ramon's turn to smuggling doesnt go anywhere whatsoever, and you'd think such a dangerous career move would create something in the way of a plot development. Instead, it's little more than "oh you were a fisherman now you're a smuggler EVERYBODY SING!" — and then it's forgotten.

But even the failed romance between Chopin and Elena fails to muster even the slightest bit of chemistry: she's dazzled by him; he's clueless. And that's as far as we go. It's all just played on the same emotional plane from beginning to end, without even a slight detour into some much-needed comic relief. In fact, the one couple that you think would provide that — Juan and Maria — are pretty well forgotten after the boys' return from Palma. Whatever storyline they might have had was derailed quickly and vanished.

At the very least, it has Chopin's music. The selections are well known works, with the possible exception of a couple that skirt with obscurity. Still, they work well for their placement in the score. It's a sad consolation, but about the only one we get.

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