Calisto: Francesco Cavalli (1651)

Lucy Crowe

★★★★

(La Nuova Musica at Wigmore Hall, 28 November 2016)

Calistos are like London buses: you wait for months and then two come along at once. Mere weeks after English Touring Opera’s vivacious production, David Bates and La Nuova Musica presented their own version of Cavalli’s tale of lust, disguise and confusion. Conceived as a semi-staged performance, to make maximum use of the Wigmore’s limited space, this Calisto boasted a cast to die for and delivered some great voices; yet it didn’t eclipse ETO quite as thoroughly as I’d expected.

Considering I wrote at length about Calisto not so long ago, I’m going to skip the plot and context here, and focus on the performances. Before going into detail, I must pay tribute to the singers who stepped in at extremely short notice when the cast was hit by no fewer than three indispositions, all in major roles. Pamela Helen Stephen bowed out as Diana, to be replaced by Jurgita Adamonytė, and Jonathan McGovern handed the role of Mercurio over to James Newby. But perhaps the most drastic change was the withdrawal of James Platt as Giove, arguably the main role, which was filled at very short notice by George Humphreys.

Those of you with good memories will recall that Humphreys played Giove in the ETO Calisto and so, by a stroke of extremely good fortune, would have had the role fresh in his mind. But remember that ETO’s operas were in English translation, which meant that Humphreys presumably had to familiarise himself with the original Italian libretto for the Wigmore performance. Not that you’d have known it: he rarely looked at the score in front of him. Indeed, all three of these white knights gave performances just as polished and accomplished as their long-planned colleagues and they deserve a stout round of applause for saving the day. I’ll write more on each in a moment.

George Humphreys

George Humphreys © Andy Staples

With the exception of Adamonytė and Newby, I’d seen every member of the cast before and so I knew that I was in thoroughly good hands. Edward Grint, who was Elviro in Xerxes just the other day, here became the shepherd Silvano, one of Pan’s acolytes. He didn’t have a particularly large role, but his bass-baritone offered a fine contrast to the higher-pitched tones of the god’s other follower, the naughty Satirino. Indeed, hearing the two of them trying to comfort the lovelorn Pane, with their voices weaving in and out of one another, I was reminded (perhaps irreverently) of the chorus in which Seneca’s friends urge him not to die in Poppea. It has the same feel, and I can’t help wondering whether Cavalli was subtly satirising Monteverdi, especially as Giove and Calisto’s final duet mirrors Pur ti miro in its melody and spirit.

That mischievous Satirino was played by Jake Arditti, who arrived on stage with a grey goatee and hair powdered to match. Here I noticed something I missed (or which may have been absent) in ETO: the character has his own musical theme: a strutting little march of the strings, which emphasises his stubborn determination. Vocally Arditti was very strong, tackling surprisingly high notes without any visible strain, and he was also, crucially, great fun to watch. This horny young satyr’s main purpose is to seduce Diana’s unwillingly chaste follower Linfea, thus offering a lowlife balance to the noble sentiments of the main couples. Arditti threw himself into the task with deliciously goatish gusto. Linfea was played here by Sam Furness, in good voice, who’d swapped Idamante‘s frock coat for a skirt, a cardigan and the prim air of a virgin schoolmarm. Between them, these two provided some raucous comedy thanks to a scene in Act 2, when they pursued each other shrieking round the Hall, bopping in and out of doorways, in a fashion best accompanied by the Benny Hill theme tune. As much of the production was quite elevated in character, it was refreshing to have a bit of that sexy silliness which underwrites so much of Cavalli’s humour.

As I’ve said, James Newby came to the rescue for Mercurio at a late stage and yet seemed entirely comfortable in the role, his lovely rich baritone providing the perfect foil for Humphreys’s melodic bass. Mercurio wasn’t as fussy here as he appeared in ETO’s version; instead, Newby was solid and loyal, watching his master’s unravelling escapades with an occasionally salacious eye. It shouldn’t matter one way or the other how old a singer is, but I feel compelled to mention that Newby’s only 23, because his confidence and presence were those of a much more mature performer. I look forward to seeing him in many more productions.

Jurgita Adamonytė

Jurgita Adamonytė © Oksana

The two secondary gods in the production are Pan, who pines after Diana, and Juno, Giove’s long-suffering wife. Both were vocally good in this production, but I couldn’t help feeling that dramatically the roles were more successful in ETO’s version. Andrew Tortise made a mournful Pan, clear-voiced but slightly too polished and polite for this rustic god. And, although Juno was sung by the excellent Rachel Kelly, I missed the vindictiveness and fire of Susanna Fairbairn’s performance for ETO (though I probably am biased). Kelly’s gorgeous voice is powerful and mellifluous, but I felt that her Juno was wallowing just a little too much in her sense of being wronged. The whole point is that Giove is terrified of Juno: she’s the kind of woman who can sear off a man’s eyebrows with her scorn, and I could have done with a little more sdegno in Kelly’s performance, despite its vocal beauty.

And what of Endimione? Here he’s freed from the added layers of interpretation added by ETO and becomes, once again, a simple shepherd with a penchant for mooning over the stars. Having now seen two performances of the role, I’m inclined to think that he isn’t a particularly interesting character. Sure, he’s of noble heart, but he’s about as gripping as a wet dishcloth and thus has much in common with Monteverdi’s Ottone. Indeed, Tim Mead could well have been singing Ottone, because he had the same furrowed brow, the same plaintive air of melancholia, that I’ve seen in both his Ottones so far. He does angst beautifully and he has a pleasantly masculine edge to his voice, but he was just hamstrung by the part. Cavalli doesn’t give Endimione the variety of emotions that we see in other roles: he is, quite simply, emo. Perhaps Diana loves him simply because he is so unworldly.

She, played by Jurgita Adamonytė as I said earlier, oscillated between chaste iciness and the odd flutter of confused warmth. As the leader of her band of huntresses, she was merciless: as she banished Calisto, Adamonytė threw out a ‘Fuggi!‘ that rang around the Hall, and her stronger notes had a hard-edged quality that perfectly suited this most unyielding of goddesses. But she was also capable of sweetness, as in the final act when Adamonytė and Mead performed their pretty duet, which trembled with the bittersweet joy of love reciprocated, but renounced.

Tim Mead

Tim Mead © Benjamin Ealovega

Calisto herself was played by Lucy Crowe, whose voice is simply wonderful. Her high notes are angelic; her lows beautifully modulated; and I admired her as much this time as I have before. Initially I was concerned that her Calisto was rather proper: unlike ETO’s child of nature, this Calisto was full of dignity in the opening scenes. Fittingly, however, she loosened up after her encounter with Giove, and her clumsily flirtatious advances towards a horrified Diana were very well done. I’m pleased to announce that La Nuova Musica went to the trouble of procuring a bear’s head, which showed great dedication to the semi-staging of the piece. Having acquired said bear head, though, it was a shame not to see more use made of it. There was an unexpected ‘bear ballet’ at the end of Act 1, where a bear-headed dancer processed gracefully up and down the aisles, but otherwise the head didn’t appear until the very final moments. Then, in a graceful acceptance of her fate, this Calisto sinks into her bear-form and is gently led away.

As for George Humphreys, I risk saying exactly the same as I did last time. Not only does the man have a fine voice, he’s a natural actor and he straddles the serious and comic parts of his role without any difficulty at all. He’s brilliant. Although the performance was only semi-staged, he changed into a long evening dress and blonde wig for the parts when he was playing Diana, a state of things made even more absurd by his height, his complete lack of femininity, and his habit of sending self-satisfied glances over his shoulder towards Mercurio. He also, very commendably, sang in falsetto whenever he was addressing Calisto (or Juno) and, while he obviously doesn’t come close to Mead or Arditti, he nevertheless did pretty damn well. When he first appeared in disguise and sang his opening lines as ‘Diana’, I was tickled pink by the couple in front of me, who were leaning over the cast list in puzzlement, trying to work out who this new countertenor was. Great fun, and presumably no mean feat for a bass. Every time he came on, the stage lit up, and I have no greater compliment for a singer: for me, he stole the show. La Nuova Musica struck gold when they secured him to step into the role at short notice.

Rachel Kelly

Rachel Kelly © Rachael Hegarty

A few minor points, however, stopped this being perfect. While, in the first act, I was struck by the lively pace set by the orchestra, I felt that this tailed off in Act 3 when Juno came to curse Calisto. This wasn’t down to Kelly who, as ever, sang with honeyed grace, but more to do with the conception. While this section in ETO’s Calisto was full of fire, ferocity and Furies, here it felt too slow and forlorn, eked out for longer than necessary. By contrast, some parts were cut altogether to save time. I probably wouldn’t have noticed this if I hadn’t seen the opera just a few weeks ago, and I imagine that La Nuova Musica were governed by the need to get the show over by 10pm (it was being broadcast live on Radio 3 and so needed to fit their schedule).

But this meant we lost some good bits – I didn’t particularly miss another of Endimione’s angsty arias, but I did miss more fun with Satirino and Linfea at the end, because the scene was cut in which everything is straightened out and everyone paired up. There was also some very odd shuffling around of scenes, which wouldn’t have been all that obvious except that the programme synopsis gave a totally different order of events in Act 3. As a result, you never quite knew whether a missing scene had been completely cut or whether it was improbably going to pop up several scenes down the line. It was most odd, and I’m not sure how far it was necessary.

However, in toto this was a great treat. The cast were super, and did a marvellous job of the semi-staging. I hadn’t been optimistic about seeing so exuberant an opera reduced to a line of people singing from their stands, but thanks to Arditti’s and Furness’s madcap moments, and Humphreys’s dramatic flair, it came to anarchic life. Notwithstanding my grumbles about the pace of Act 3, the orchestra were bright and lively and there were some lovely details, such as the use of the harp to suggest the rippling of the spring in Act 1, and then to offer a bombastic fanfare as Giove reveals himself to Calisto. I’d have liked slightly more characterisation from Mead and Kelly, but was deeply impressed by how well the three last-minute additions coped with their roles. It was a polished and professional production and, if there were moments when I felt it lacked a bit of drama, that doesn’t detract from it having been a very fine night out.

As ever, Dehggial has her own unique and very funny take on things. Have a look at her thoughts here.

Find out more about La Nuova Musica

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