Calisto: Francesco Cavalli (1651)

Cavalli: Calisto

★★★★

(English Touring Opera at the Hackney Empire, 14 October 2016)

On Friday night it was time for the second opera in ETO’s autumn Baroque trilogy (the first was their Battle of Britain Xerxes). This time we were going back to the mid-17th century for Cavalli’s Calisto, which on the surface is an exuberant pantomime in song about gods behaving badly in the forests of Arcadia. Beneath the raunchiness, however, this opera has a surprisingly radical message. In a fascinating pre-show talk, the director and conductor Tim Nelson explored allusions to Galileo and the defeat of faith by reason, which – if this isn’t just the result of academic over-reading – would make the apparently frothy Calisto a subversive commentary on the biggest controversy of the day.

Let’s begin by looking at the plot, in all its frivolity, which covers some of the same ground as Giove in Argo. Jupiter (George Humphreys) comes down from Mount Olympus to survey the earth, which he has recently blasted with drought as a punishment for the evils of man. As he wanders in the forests, however, he spots the beautiful nymph Calisto (Paula Sides), with whom this lecherous god-king falls instantly in love. And yet, what’s this? The girl dares refuse his advances, even after he conjures up a spring to slake her thirst! It turns out that Jupiter has made an unfortunate choice: Calisto is sworn to the service of the virgin goddess Diana (Jupiter’s daughter, incidentally). What is he to do? Fortunately the trickster Mercury (Nick Pritchard) has a plan. Jupiter’s disguises have served him well in his other amours. All he needs to do is disguise himself as Diana and the girl will be putty in his hands! Plus, that’ll throw Jupiter’s jealous and rather terrifying wife Juno off the scent. Sorted!

Cavalli: Calisto

Calisto (Paula Sides) and Diana (Catherine Carby) © Jane Hobson.

Elsewhere in the forest, the shepherd-astronomer Endymion (Tai Oney) is gazing at the moon. Seeking to understand her orbits and phases, he has fallen deeply in love with Diana (Catherine Carby), little guessing that the goddess secretly returns his admiration. In yet another part of the forest, the wild goat-god Pan (John-Colyn Gyeantey) also yearns for Diana’s love, although in a rather less chaste and philosophical fashion. And so, when a doppelganger Diana appears – boasting an inflated bosom, a determined falsetto and rather less than virginal designs on Calisto – the scene is set for chaos to erupt. Not to mention the fact that Juno (Susanna Fairbairn) has got wind of her errant husband’s latest escapade. She comes to track him down, bearing a rifle and an attitude that would make any sensible immortal quiver in his (currently thigh-high, heeled) boots.

This is probably the silliest Cavalli opera I’ve seen: even Ercole Amante, which looked sillier, had a more serious story at its heart. On the surface it’s all cross-dressing, nudges, winks and innuendo – Carry On Calisto, essentially. But, if Tim Nelson is to be believed (and he made a good job of persuading me), this ribald carnival is a cover for something much more profound and challenging. I found his ideas so interesting that I’m going to try to explain them here. If you’d rather skip straight on to the part where I tell the cast how wonderful they all were, that’s down towards the end of the post.

Calisto was one of several collaborations between Cavalli and the Venetian librettist and theatre impresario Giovanni Faustini. Faustini sounds like an absolute legend: according to Nelson he was arrested several times, once for public indecency when, in the middle of fighting a duel, he cut through his opponent’s belt so the man’s breeches fell round his ankles. He evidently had a devilish sense of humour, because he’s also responsible for the deliciously naughty libretti of Ormindo and ElenaIn the hands of men like Faustini, said Nelson, opera began to diverge from the early high-minded, morally improving libretti written by aristocrats and priests. Expectations were challenged and immoral characters no longer received their comeuppances. Remember that Calisto dates from only eight years after Monteverdi’s Poppea, which shows the triumph of immorality par excellence!

Nelson says that the characters in the opera would have been charged with contemporary resonance. Endymion, for example, was often associated in the 17th century with Galileo: another famous star-gazer (apparently there’s a fresco at the University of Padua which links famous scientists with mythological characters: Galileo and Endymion are duly paired). Knowing this, certain lines in the opera take on extra significance. As the jealous Pan and his henchmen try to force Endymion to renounce his love for Diana, they tussle him between them, demanding, “Stop moving!” “Whatever you do,” Endymion responds, “I still move.” Eppur si muove, and all that (the phrase itself appears in the finale). The libretto, or at least the English translation – which Nelson assures us is faithful – is full of references to the stars, the spheres and astronomy.

Cavalli: Calisto

Pan (John-Colyn Gyeantey) © Jane Hobson

And Nelson sees Pan, Endymion’s adversary, as a representation of Galileo’s nemesis: the Catholic Church in all its hypocritical power. In this production, Pan makes his first entrance wearing a cardinal’s cap and a crimson sash. Nelson explained that the phrase ‘Pan is dead‘ (deriving from Plutarch, apparently – this talk made me feel incredibly poorly read) had been adopted in the medieval world to signify that the old gods had been superseded by Christianity: paganism by the true faith. And yet Pan is the loser in Giustini and Cavalli’s opera. He is thwarted by the virtuous Diana, who prefers the chaste and pure adoration of Endymion to the corrupt lust of the goat-god. Extrapolating from Nelson’s theory, could we see Diana as a kind of Divine Wisdom, favouring Galilean reason above the arrogant possessiveness of the Church hierarchy?

Nelson also drew our attention to the parallels between Eve and Calisto: an innocent, tempted and corrupted by a disguised divine power, who is then cast out of paradise and eventually redeemed and raised to the heavens. Even more interesting, some of Calisto’s first words after being restored from her bear-shape are: “Behold, I am the handmaiden of the Lord and my soul glorifies his name.” What was Giustini playing at? It looks as if Calisto, who appears reborn, personifies Original Sin: first as the culpable Eve and later as the purified, spotless Virgin. I couldn’t count the number of stars which appeared on Calisto’s headdress in the finale, as she rose to Heaven, but if there were twelve, then the designers have made the connection explicit and turned her into the visionary Virgin of Revelations. This is the sort of thing that fascinates me. I’m not religious, but thanks to my job I know a fair bit about religion, and connections like this please me.

In this production, the links between Endymion and science are brought out strongly, although here Endymion becomes Einstein rather than Galileo (“We didn’t think Galileo was recognisable enough,” admitted Nelson). The forest is an abstract tangle of metal ‘trees’ which double up, with cogs and gears, as the dismantled innards of some great machine, which Endymion fervently dreams of understanding.

Cavalli: Calisto

Diana (Catherine Carby) and Endymion (Tai Oney) © Jane Hobson.

I hadn’t realised Tai Oney was in this cast and so was pleasantly surprised to hear his Endymion, after encountering his Arsamene last year. He managed well with a challenging role that was set rather low for the countertenor voice, lingering around that grey area where singers often break into chest voice. It was actually more what I think of as haute-tenor, that region between countertenor and tenor (this voice type also appeared in Cavalli’s Ormindo, and there I saw the role taken by Samuel Boden). The part must have demanded extra control of register, and Oney managed splendidly.

The entire cast were extremely strong – it’s rare indeed to see a production where there isn’t a single weak link – and this goes not just for their singing but also for the gusto with which they threw themselves into the acting. I thought Catherine Carby’s Diana and Paula Sides’s Calisto both had gorgeous voices, the former bringing out all the poignant conflict in this virgin goddess’s heart, while Sides channelled hopeless, naive passion. But Giustini’s anarchic humour means that the comic characters are the ones who really stick in the mind. George Humphreys was an absolute delight, tackling the difficult role of Jupiter with great aplomb. As the King of the Gods in all his brocaded splendour, he had a lovely light baritone, but when in disguise as Diana he managed a very creditable falsetto, and his comic timing was absolutely perfect. As his sidekick Mercury – fussy, slightly camp and covered in glitter – Nick Pritchard impressed me a great deal. His voice seems to have grown a lot stronger since I saw him in Haydn’s Creation, where I was yet to be convinced by him. Now his tenor is lovely, clear and strong and, in what was effectively an upmarket servant role, his acting was nicely judged to undermine Jupiter’s preening.

Cavalli: Calisto

Satirino (Katie Bray) © Jane Hobson

I have to give a special mention to Susanna Fairbairn’s Juno as well. A necessary disclaimer here: Susanna is a friend of mine from university, although I don’t think I’m being at all indulgent when I say that her Juno was a magnificent, domineering piece of work. Part of that was in the voice – a fierce, characterful soprano – but much of it was in the acting: the sight of Susanna in a corset, panniers and fishnets, striding across a stage with a rifle in her hand and vengeance in her heart, was more than enough to inspire fear across all of Olympus. She played the part with enormous relish and I was delighted to see how good an actress she is, because I’ve only ever heard her sing in concert before. Many more angry operatic ladies to come from Miss Fairbairn, I hope!

Then there were the fully comic characters: John-Colyn Gyeantey played Pan in what I can only describe as a very satisfyingly goatish manner (down to his little bleating snores when he fell asleep). His youthful faun follower Satirino, performed exuberantly by Katie Bray, is the Valetto of this piece: the over-eager adolescent, impatient to seize a slice of life. And the slice his eye lights upon is none other than Linfea, the doughtiest and sternest of Diana’s followers. In true Cavalli fashion, this virago is played by a tenor and Adrian Dwyer stepped up to the mark with some beautifully maidenly acting: in blonde plaits and hunting dress, he looked like a Valkyrie gone astray. But Linfea is not fully content with her chaste life at the hunt. She yearns to know the warmth of a marital bed and one of her mournful monologues is overheard by the rampant Satirino, leading to an unlikely match (made up, of course, of a woman and a man, both cross-dressed).

Cavalli: Calisto

Linfea (Adrian Dwyer) © Jane Hobson

I’ve written more than usual about this opera precisely because I was taken by the idea of a double-layered plot, with bawdy comedy hiding a much more profound statement of support for Galileo and his revolutionary ideas. If I hadn’t gone to the pre-show talk, I’m sure I wouldn’t have enjoyed Calisto quite so much, nor have been so indulgent of the directorial choices. Having been able to follow Nelson’s thought process, and come to understand more about the historical context of the opera, it all made much more sense. However, fear not. If you don’t want to be weighed down with historical context, this is still a hugely enjoyable romp. It’ll be travelling all over the UK in the coming weeks, so it’s highly likely that there’ll be a performance somewhere near you (along with Xerxes and Ulisse, of course). For ribaldry and energy, this takes some beating and it shows Cavalli at his most irrepressible. Plus, it’s a real treat to see such a strong cast.

Considering this is the first time I’ve seen any of ETO’s shows, I’ve been bowled away by the standard of their productions. The sets are simple but pleasing, the concepts different enough to be fresh, without departing into the realms of the Pantheon of Odd, and they’ve assembled a wonderful team of singers and musicians. It looks like their spring season will be devoted to much later works, but I’m going to be keeping a sharp eye on their future London schedule in the hope of seeing more Baroque treasures. For now, there’s one of this season’s performances left to go: Monteverdi’s Ritorno d’Ulisse in patria, on which more soon…

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