Composer: Francesco Cavalli
Conductor/Director: Timothy Nelson
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
At the start of English Touring Opera’s extensive UK tour, and in sharp contrast to the production of Ulysses’ Homecoming (a much more austere opera, be it said), Timothy Nelson’s imaginative take on Cavalli’s La Calisto got short shrift from the reviewers who unanimously took against its Carry On capers. Now, whether Nelson has toned things down or the original production has bedded in, it emerges as more coherent and much more joyous than these first impressions suggested.
True, Nelson is guilty of special pleading when he writes in the programme, “The first and second acts are outrageously funny, irreverent and farcical. The third act is something else entirely.” Broadly that may be true, but the opening of Act Two, for instance, is a delicate duet for Diana and Endimione, here beautifully realised by Catherine Carby and Tai Oney. Sometimes the desire to be outrageously funny leads Nelson to excess. For instance, goat god Pane’s gang clip-clopping on coconut shells is a bit much, though goat boy Satirino (Katie Bray)’s attempted seduction of sexually aware warrior nymph Linfea (Adrian Dwyer) is a delightful piece of cross-gender buffoonery.
It’s the mingling of tone and genre that is difficult for a modern director. Our 21st Century ears are now attuned to the sound of the baroque orchestra, especially one as good as the Old Street Band under Timothy Nelson, but we look for character development when the 17th Century gives us character change and we prefer people to gods, especially gods who switch from mighty powers to very naughty boys and back again.
Giovanni Faustini’s text conflates two unrelated tales from classical mythology: the shepherd Endimione’s love for Diana, goddess of the moon, and Giove, king of the gods, disguised as Diana to seduce the nymph Calisto. Throw in the goats of Pane and a warrior nymph, Linfea, looking for a good time and you have a potentially indigestible brew, even for opera lovers who regard consumptive seamstresses and arrogant bullfighters as everyday companions.
By and large Nelson’s production succeeds in unifying La Calisto. Takis’ set helps enormously: gods, goddesses, stars and planets in the height, magically lit by Mark Howland, steampunk adventure playground down below for nymphs, shepherds and shape-changing gods to romp in.
Vocally, the cast of 10 is all excellent. Exploding on the scene in the second half, Susanna Fairbairn is magnificently and terrifyingly vindictive as Giunone, trying to check the wanderings of her errant husband. As that errant husband, Giove George Humphreys brings an amusing gaucheness and a fine falsetto to his impersonation of Diana and his sidekick Nick Pritchard (Mercurio) has a nice line in understated camp. Calisto is an oddly passive character and Paula Sides only really finds her niche in the heavens but sings throughout with power and sensitivity. John-Colyn Gyeantley (Pane) and Peter Brathwaite (his henchman), in the least helpful of Takis’ often wittily imaginative costumes, also sing their unappealing roles admirably.
Touring nationwide | Image: Jane Hobson