★★★½☆ Comedy, musical richness and social commentary mingle in this early Venetian classic.

The Hackney Empire, London
October 14, 2016

English Touring Opera can look back on a year of remarkable achievements having given 164 performances in 91 venues around the UK. This season they have embarked on a trio of early operas which include Monteverdi (Ulysses’ Homecoming), Handel (Xerxes) and Cavalli (La Calisto). A small orchestra using early instruments has also been created for the tour and the operas will be complemented by performances with local choirs of Bach’s St. John Passion. Audiences will hear two of the great operas from the 17th-century Venetian repertoire and two important works from Bach and Handel that further pushed these musical boundaries.

La Calisto was first performed in 1651 at the 400-seat Teatro Sant’Apollinare in Venice, a venue owned by his librettist Giovanni Faustini. It was not a success and played for only eleven performances, often to small houses. Yet out of a large body of operatic work it is the most performed of his pieces today. Its attraction lies not only in some hauntingly beautiful music but in its broad comedy and revealing commentary on the human situation. It is a perfect example of early Venetian opera with some beautiful laments, love duets and bawdy comedy. There is still much to enjoy for a modern audience.

The opera is set in an enchanted wood with streams and fountains. It is a playground for the gods, human nymphs and earthy characters such as Pan and Satirino, a half-goat boy. In many ways the opera is reminiscent of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream sharing the use of disguise, mistaken identity, thwarted love and a commentary from comic buffo characters. Both works share a delicate charm combined with moments of emotional intensity.

The set design, created by Takis, showcased an industrial vision of this enchanted wood. The trees are represented by curved metal poles with serrated cog wheels as foliage. The forest floor is festooned with various sizes of anglepoise lamps. A child’s slide is requisitioned as a device for fast (but ungainly) entrances and two tower frame ladders lurk behind the metal trees, mostly used to denote the habitat of the gods.  Apart from some clever lighting by Mark Howland, this brutalist industrial chic may have signalled the emergence of rational science in Venice, but in my opinion the design did little else for the opera.

The first night had a rather tentative start with the music lacking sufficient bite and energy. Also the use of a gauze curtain did not help the opening scene. The orchestral ensemble (which grew in confidence as the evening progressed) sounded a little thin at times and conductor-director, Timothy Nelson, will need to review some of the opening dynamics to achieve the quality so beautifully achieved later on.

The production was well served by a cast of able singers most of whom were entirely comfortable with Cavalli’s musical style. As the production settles down many fine performances will emerge. The standout singer for me on this first night was Susanna Fairbairn as Giunone, wife of the philandering god Giove. Both her entry aria, which spat anger and frustration, followed by her final lament regarding the fate of wives cheated on by their husbands, were beautifully sung.

Giove, sung by bass-baritone George Humphreys, looked dashing in his high boots and tight military jacket. The voice was strong and rounded (with an amusing falsetto when disguised as Diana) but some of the comedy needed a little finessing. Humphreys was certainly a crowd-pleaser and his performance was always anchored in the music. Nick Pritchard as his messenger Mercurio sang well with the right air of resignation and amusement. He pitched the comic aspects of his role very well.

As Calisto, Paula Sides gave a fine performance, successfully navigating the emotional rollercoaster her character grapples with. Her passions felt real and we could identify with her moral dilemmas. I enjoyed her singing very much and you can see why she is an ETO regular.

The buffo characters of Pane, Silvano and Satirino were uniformly delightful with a great sense of comedy and innate musicality. Special mention must be given to Kate Bray as Satirino who burst her way onto the stage in a ball of energy and fine singing. Adrian Dwyer as Linfea (Diana’s warrior nymph) was also pitch perfect in both comedy and singing.

Australian mezzo-soprano Catherine Carby displayed her usual beauty of tone as the goddess Diana. She gave an assured musical performance and I loved her smooth evenly produced voice, ideal for a Cavalli score. Carby could have been more physically relaxed, especially in her negotiation of the difficult set, but she looked dashing as Diana and furnished her archer’s bow with aplomb. In the programme notes Nelson claims that despite the opera’s title, the main roles belong to Diana and her lover Endimione. They certainly share some ravishing music but I never felt a strong connection between them. 

Endimione, sung by the talented countertenor Tai Oney, was both engaging and capable as a singer. He navigated the comic demands of the role worked hard to leave room for more serious emotional content. Nelson made a point of linking this character to the astronomer Galileo who was considered a hero of the Venetian republic after his arrest. I can see how he represented rational thought and Diana more heavenly qualities, but it is harder to explore this in a white shock wig reminiscent of a mad professor. Despite the comic moments, an audience has to take their final love pairing seriously as that is where the music leads us. Both singers had more to give if they had been left the space.

Nelson understands that early Venetian opera should and can be fun. Cavalli deliberately wrote these pieces to be accessible and affordable for every day citizens rather than just nobility. It is fitting that this mirrors the philosophy of ETO themselves. But the question in this production remains how far you can impose comedy on a libretto already rich in buffo characters. Some, like myself, may have wished Nelson had reigned back a little, leaving further space for deeper emotional content to be explored. However, it is a production well worth seeing and will soon bed down into something quite special.

ETO’s La Calisto tours around venues in the UK until November 23, 2016


Sign up to the Limelight newsletter