"Endless Pleasure" can sometimes be what Baroque opera promises but not does always fulfil, with its conveyor belt of da capo arias and labyrinthine plots of dynastic intrigue in remote classical times. Yet, in The Enchanted Island a sparkling quartet of of cocktail-sipping lovers, straight out of a Noël Coward play, on their honeymoon cruise do just that, as adapted from Semele's vivacious aria. Jeremy Sams, in his re-imagining of an 18th-century pasticcio devised for a stellar cast at the Metropolitan Opera, certainly works his “rough magic” to conjure up an entertainment, “rich and strange” if not always to completely convincing narrative effect.

Timothy Edlin (Caliban) and Frances Gregory (Sycorax) © Robert Workman
Timothy Edlin (Caliban) and Frances Gregory (Sycorax)
© Robert Workman

Intruigingly, the original plan was for a pasticcio based on bel canto arias but Sams wiesely devised a Baroque version, a practice Handel and his contemporaries employed when catering to popular taste for novelty by borrowing from other composers and, indeed, themselves to create 'new' works for the box office. Drawing mostly on lesser known opera and oratorios by Handel and Vivaldi, Sams also drafts in French composers such as Rameau with their colourful orchestral effects and use of ballet to create a varied texture of solos, ensembles and choruses. Rather than compiling a Top Ten of Baroque Hits The Enchanted Island amounts to much more than a gallimaufry of choice gobbets, seasoned with French galanterie.

Sams' English text is based on Shakespeare's The Tempest as a framework, but that fantastic play has effectivey only one female lead, so splicing in the lovers from A Midsummer Night's Dream, shipwrecked on the island, allows for greater range of male and female characters and vocal registers. In addition, the witch Sycorax, the dispossessed ruler and mother of Caliban, provides a juicy mezzo role and Ariel is assigned to a high soprano.

Iúnó Connolly (Ariel) and Alex Bevan (Neptune) © Bill Knight
Iúnó Connolly (Ariel) and Alex Bevan (Neptune)
© Bill Knight

As in The Tempest, family and personal intrigues are transmuted into a magical tale of eventual reconciliation. Prospero, sung commandingly by the countertenor Tom Scott-Cowell, even throughout his range, is an ailing figure, matched in her dark fetid swamp by the Sycorax of Francis Gregory, whose ample richly toned voice gives pathos as well edge to her several arias. Ariel, here more Puck than ethereal spirit, is sung with engaging lightness and fluency by Iúnó Connolly, counterbalancing the darkly incisive bass of Timothy Edlin as Caliban.

Ariel's spells go hilariously astray in Stuart Barker's deft and swiftly moving production with the lovers becomng entangled with the wrong partners, Lysander and Demetrius both falling for Miranda, while Caliban falls for Helena and her love for the local flora and fauna. The resulting love entanglements give scope for a series of varied duets, quartets and even a sextet. All the lovers are characterfully played and pointedly sung, notably James Atkinson's muscular baritone, in all sense as he flexes his biceps, as Lysander. Indeed in a cast of eleven soloists all are given a chance to shine vocally both individually and in ensembles with clarity of diction and stylistic authenticity , though the text does not always sit comfortably superimposed on the original music. Miranda's destined lover Ferdinand makes a late entry but Tim Morgan's lilting countertenor in “Gliding onwards” made a notable effect.

Timothy Edlin (Caliban) and Caroline Taylor (Helena) © Robert Workman
Timothy Edlin (Caliban) and Caroline Taylor (Helena)
© Robert Workman

The other major character introduced into the plot is invevitably a deus ex machina, namely Neptune, a part created for Plácido Domingo. Despite a tremendous build-up to his entry using the anthem Zadok the Priest, his maundering lament for the despoliation of his sea realm led to an anticlimactic Act 1 curtain. The intention seems to be to add a serious ballast regarding 'man and nature' to the predominantly magical plot. Similarly, after a three hour playing length, the over-extended finale faulters as Prospero begs for forgiveness and reconciliation while overshadowing the actual disentangling and resolution of the plot.

Avoiding the clichés of Baroque staging, the evocatively lit platform and semi-circular rear screen formed a flexible space with the agile and imaginatively choreographed chorus manipulating props and draperies to create storms and ships at sea. Indeed the 18-piece chorus were worthy individuals in themselves, excellenty drilled vocally.

In the dull acoutistic of the Peacock Theatre, the relatively large Southbank Sinfonia sounded too homogeneous and conductor Nicholas Kraemer's steady rhythms could have let more colour and texture into the playing.

While the London and regional opera companies crank up for the opening of their new seasons, British Youth Opera proved once again that there is a “brave new world" of young talent ready to make their mark upon their stages.

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