REVIEW:Opera The Masque in Dioclesian/ Kent Opera Orchard Theatre, Dartford

'It persuaded a cast of British singers to move with pace and lightness as well as formality'
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The Independent Culture
Surprises of the imagination are a driving force at the revived Kent Opera. There's a challenge of style and spirit in following last season's intensely dramatic Britten staging with a leap into airy Baroque entertainment. For the same production team to bring it off with wit and flair is the sign of a company that has kept its touch.

The score Purcell wrote for Dioclesian, a Beaumont and Fletcher adaptation of 1690, has as its climax a self-contained masque. It has fine and expressive music, often done in concerts, but next to no plot - just a few suggestive episodes of Jupiter's love life. When Tim Carroll was preparing this first staged performance in modern times, given at the Orchard Theatre in Dartford on Saturday, he had to face another issue head-on. In its original guise as part of a lavish production, spectacular scene changes would have been the whole point. Tell that to a small Nineties opera company and they will usually decide to perform something else.

Carroll's answer was in the eyes and the mind. He devised a storyline that brings Jupiter into the thick of the action in several manifestations, and reassigned the songs. This teased out the sensuality of both characters and music, while keeping the show in period, and so did his visual treatment. Instead of material extravagance, he went for panache and subtlety. We've seen attempts at Baroque staging that look grotesquely arch, but the skill of this Dioclesian was that it persuaded a cast of British singers to move with pace and lightness as well as formality.

Roger Butlin's designs supplied the hint of lavishness inside their symmetrical, severe framework of arched gantries with dead-centre entrances on two levels. The upper balcony proved to be a lift, so that Eros could make his climactic ascent with new bravado. Rich purples and blues in the costumes gave an extra charge of optical energy.

As various Jupiter figures, Paul Esswood's eloquent counter-tenor and Mark Curtis's ardent light tenor led but didn't overwhelm a well-balanced cast. Most of them had appeared in the first half's song sequence where the vigorous Kent Opera Baroque Orchestra came into its own, responding, like the singers, to Michael Rosewell's conducting with un-prissy sensibility. First came Tippett's Songs for Ariel in a 90th-birthday tribute to the company's president, and then the extracts from other Purcell stage scores. Carroll gave them simple stagings, in costume, and thanks to Simon Opie's artfully varied lighting a degree of dramatic atmosphere developed, especially for the encounter between Saul and the Witch of Endor. Jeanette Ager made powerful appearances as Altisdora and Mad Bess. But much of the singing lacked projection and the sequence didn't catch fire. After the interval, another story.

n Tonight at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London SE1 (0171-928 8800); 7 Oct, The Assembly Hall, Tunbridge Wells (01892 530613); 16 & 17 Oct, Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury (01227 787787)