26 April 2014, Hampstead Garden Opera
It’s been a good year for Cavalli enthuasiasts – and about time, too, given how little attention he and his contemporaries from the first half of the 17th century have received from posterity. After March’s hosting by the new Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare’s Globe of the composer’s 1644 opera L’Ormindo, the baton has taken up by Hampstead Garden Opera with their production of Cavalli’s most famous work, La Calisto (1651), staged at Upstairs at the Gatehouse in Highgate Village, London.
Despite Cavalli’s relative obscurity today, Calisto isn’t a completely unknown quantity even on these shores – Raymond Leppard revived it at Glyndebourne in 1970 (as he did with L’Ormindo, in 1967), the Opera Factory produced it at the Royal Court Theatre in the 1980s, and I was present in 2008 when it received its Covent Garden premiere.
HGO’s production is performed in translation, in accordance with the company’s stated aims – a wise decision for whatever reason, as it both obviates the need for surtitles and makes much easier the task of following the convoluted and unfamiliar plot, adapted from that cornucopia of inspiration for artists and composers, Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
The nymph Calisto, a virginal devotee of the goddess Diana, is railing against the gods for devastating the earth when Jove (Jupiter) appears and, taking a shine to her – as was his wont – disguises himself as her mistress in order to seduce Calisto. When the nymph revels in this unexpected favour supposedly shown her, the real Diana casts her out from her fellowship. Jove reappears as Diana for another tryst with the confused Calisto, but is caught almost in the act by his vengeful wife Juno, who puts an end to her husband’s latest escapade by turning Calisto into a bear. Jove, finally showing some genuine care, promises that although he is powerless to reverse Juno’s spell here on earth, after Calisto’s death she will be immortalised in the heavens (as the constellation the Great Bear). Additional sub-plots bring some levity: Diana isn’t as chaste as she likes to make out, struggling with and eventually giving into her love for the shepherd Endymion, various satyrs and Diana-following hunters engage in amorous tussles, and the god Pan tries unsuccessfully to woo Diana for himself.
In the case of Calisto the sparkling and hugely humorous translation is the final product of many weeks’ hard work by production director Joe Austin, who took the partially surviving translation by poet Anne Ridler used by the Opera Factory and both completed it and made it tauter and racier – all the while leading rehearsals with both casts (and assisting David Alden at ENO). The result is a triumph – clear and immediately comprehensible without being ‘trendy’ or overly colloquial, and with trite (and belly-laughter-inducing) rhymes employed when appropriate to the character or situation (“he’s so corny … when he’s horny” being one of the most memorable).
Austin’s visual work is no less satisfying. The setting is a scorched, barren landscape, and in Austin’s modern conception Diana and her female followers are hunters (reminiscent of Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games) struggling to impose some sort of order in this post-apocalyptic world. Pan and his band of satyrs are grungy, lawless bandits who will take advantage of anything or anyone they encounter, while Jove and his fellow Olympians dress in sleek, opulent black, further emphasising the emotional and moral distance between themselves and the inhabitants of the destroyed earth.
Austin has gone for the ‘less is more’ approach in his staging, and in such a small space it’s the right choice: the staging is on two levels, and the only important moving part is a steel bedframe, which emerges out of the sandy-coloured ground to serve as slumbering place for Diana, torture rack for Endymion, and as Calisto’s platform amongst the stars. Otherwise, strewn junk and broken chairs seem to represent both the desolation of the land and the skewed morals, behaviour, and sense of responsibility displayed by all the characters except Calisto and Endymion.
There are many delightful little touches throughout, but it was the clear and detailed direction of the central characters that pleased most: this is a very well-acted production, at exactly the right level of expressiveness and vigour for the intimate space.
If the musical side didn’t quite come up to the same level of excellence, it was through no fault of the instrumental playing. At first glance the eight-person orchestra doesn’t seem to have evolved much from what we might consider standard for performances of Monteverdi’s operas, with its rich continuo basis – two harpsichords (one played by conductor and HGO musical director Oliver-John Ruthven), theorbo, harp and viola da gamba – and four treble instruments – two violins and two recorders, one of the latter doubling with harp. (In fact, this ensemble is smaller than that employed by HGO for their performances of that composer’s Orfeo in 2012, although larger than the six-piece band known to have played in the first production of Calisto in 1651.)
However, as Ruthven points out in his programme essay, Cavalli’s style is very different from Monteverdi’s, even though the latter had only been dead eight years when Calisto was written – the younger man’s recitatives are more driven and less static, bass-lines have more of their own character rather than merely serving as a harmonic platform for the melody, and the fact that the original Italian libretto was written entirely in verse rather than in prose means that the lines between recitative and aria in Cavalli’s music are often blurred, with the two forms blending and running from one into the other with little hold-up to the flow.
The myriad textures conjured up by the aforementioned continuo team contributed as much to the personalisation and individuation of the three main groups of characters as Austin’s staging, and were a source of constant delight throughout the evening – having five instruments at his call meant that Ruthven was able to choose from a wide palette of sound for every action on stage and every mood expressed, frequently silencing the more present harpsichord sound to allow the clarity of theorbo, harp and gamba to shine through.
The quality of the singing was inconsistent across the cast, although there were no real weak links – something not always easily avoided with so many small roles that flit in and out of the action. The strongest performances came from soprano Susanna Fairburn as a blazing, venom-spitting Juno who easily stole the show with her electric stage presence and brilliant delivery (not to mention her sparkling feathered cabaret dress), and from countertenor James Hall, who as the ill-fortuned Endymion sings perhaps the opera’s loveliest aria, when at the beginning of the second act he rhapsodises about his beloved Diana as she sleeps.
Zoe Freedman’s portrayal of Diana was more convincing in her more tender scenes with Endymion (hers and Hall’s voices blending particularly well) than in strident voice raging against Calisto, when the vehemence of her delivery sometimes detracted from her vocal tone. Bass Chris Webb’s warm lower register made him a convincing and alluring Jove despite rather hammed-up posturing, even if it was the excellent Harriet Burns who – in her role as one of Jove’s entourage – supplied the voice of the false Diana. The other principal god, Pan, was acted with enthusiastic coarseness by Tom Morss but sung with sweetness and beauty – his is a powerful and attractive haute-contre voice, and once over some early graveliness was the singing I enjoyed most.
In the title role, Rachel Wood had the most demanding part, and brought to it easily the best diction of the whole cast. Her portrayal fitted well the beleaguered character of Calisto, who after all suffers mercilessly and is cruelly punished for being an innocent and helpless plaything of the gods’ capricious nature. The final scene, in which Calisto resigns herself to her ursine fate (albeit with its promise of future glory) and the whole cast comes together to welcome her into the heavens, is perhaps the best, visually and musically, in this excellent and immensely satisfying production – a worthy addition to the woefully short list of modern productions of Cavalli’s stage works.
All photos © 2014 Laurent Compagnon