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Sullivan: L’Île Enchantée; Thespis

RTÉ Concert Orchestra/Andrew Penny (Naxos)

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

L’Île Enchantée; Thespis
RTÉ Concert Orchestra/Andrew Penny
Naxos 8.555180   57:08 mins

Sullivan without Gilbert? Not quite. Thespis was actually the couple’s first collaboration, a pantomime-style entertainment produced at the Gaiety Theatre, London in 1871. Most of Sullivan’s score is lost, but the short ballet survives, and is well worth hearing. Its sweetly lyrical ‘Pas de Châles’ and the scampering ‘Galop’ are especially enjoyable, and winningly dispatched by Andrew Penny and his RTÉ Concert Orchestra.

L’Île Enchantée is a longer work, written by Sullivan (sans Gilbert) seven years earlier when Covent Garden needed a ballet for its production of Bellini’s La Sonnambula. Plot-wise, L’Île has nothing whatsoever to do with Bellini’s opera – it was tagged on at the end of the evening – and concerns a sailor shipwrecked on an island populated by fairies.

You’d never guess that from the music, which is expertly crafted by the 21-year-old Sullivan, and consistently tuneful. Its spry, Mendelssohnian Prelude, with popping pizzicato detail, draws delightfully pointed playing from the orchestra, and its strings caress Sullivan’s pliable writing in the ‘Scène des disparitions’. The ballet, of course, ends in a gush of happiness, the sailor marrying the fairy queen on her ‘enchanted island’.

Stylistically, you could say that there is nothing original about L’Île Enchantée, but originality can be overrated. These early ballets show the young Sullivan already had the happy knack of tickling an audience’s attention, and orchestrating with wit and precision. No other recordings of them are currently available, and these crisp, on-point performances mean that none are now really necessary.

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Terry Blain