Of nearly thirty surviving operas by Cavalli, La Calisto (1651) remains, so far, about the only one to have secured a regular place in the repertoire, notwithstanding sporadic outings for Giasone and Hypermestra. Mathilde Lopez’s Longborough production ingeniously demonstrates that this bawdy re-telling of a Classical myth is readily adaptable to the modern age, as the narrative of Jupiter’s seduction of the nymph Calisto (who has vowed to become a virgin follower of the hunter-goddess Diana) is transplanted to a contemporary setting in what appears to be a seedy private club. Whilst retaining the lewd comedy of the original, it also becomes a serious story about Calisto as the victim of irresponsible male desire.
Jupiter and his sidekick, Mercury, are two sleazy playboys, on the prowl after what looks like an already raucous night – in the Prologue, the goddesses Destiny, Nature, and Eternity become three gossiping cleaning ladies, surveying the scene and discussing (ironically, in the context) what should happen to Calisto as they tidy up. In this case, her fate is far from an elevation to immortality among the stars, but to be left – inebriated and abused – as another trophy conquest of Jupiter’s, for whom he has no further use.
Elements of a fancy-dress party, adding to the frivolous atmosphere, are neatly sustained in close parallel with the myth, by two figures who accompany Juno (Giunone), dressed with peacocks’ heads (the animal sacred to her); the cleaners at certain times feature the heads of bears, in anticipation of the creature into which Calisto will be turned through Juno’s jealous rage; Pan (Pane) and Satyr (Satirino) are, naturally, fitted out with goats heads.
The production winningly adapts much of the fun, then, of Cavalli’s original, though it misses a vital trick in that Linfea is not realised as a transvestite role (as intended by Cavalli) but is played ‘straight’ by a woman, agile and alluring as Emma Charles is in her singing as she ponders what erotic love might mean for her as another of Diana’s inexperienced cohort. Further comedy is eliminated in that, when Jupiter adopts his disguise as Diana to dupe the innocent Calisto into amorous pleasures, this production substitutes Diana (Sophie Goldrick) in those situations, rather than have Kemp in drag and sing falsetto, as also usually happens. That seems a surprising decision given that the apparently farcical convention of such travesti roles in Baroque Venetian opera surely resonates more than ever with contemporary audiences in light of modern understandings of gender fluidity. Given the lack of general familiarity with the form, that convention is unlikely to register with audiences as the cliché it would become in seventeenth-century drama.
In terms of the production’s mechanics, a hovering concrete panel (seemingly to denote a gallery) near the front of the stage limits the flow of action somewhat, such that characters are periodically aligned statically on the portion of the acting area nearest the audience, where the action wants to break free of such confinement to give greater expression to its inherent vitality.
The musical account is at least as lively as the choreography, the score being literally jazzed up in a notable number of passages – particularly to underline the louche characters of Jupiter and Mercury. Cavalli’s typically sparse, continuo-led music (by standards of later opera, that is) gives The Barefoot Band and Lesley Anne Sammons the freedom to elaborate the basic score with added drums, a clarinet, keyboard (in addition to the standard harpsichord), and an electronic guitar, to provide more colour and weighty accompaniment – very occasionally to the detriment of the singing. But on the whole, the two styles blend convincingly, just as the contemporary staging interweaves myth and Baroque opera.
In general, the singers are also musically glamorous, capturing an impressive range of character and drama. Felix Kemp and Neil Balfour offer a certain lurid charm, as appropriate, for Jupiter and Mercury, Balfour a touch more rough-edged and dry. Chiara Vinci is a tender, fairly demure Calisto, compared to which Zita Syme makes a more fearsome, hard-toned Juno, and Sophie Goldrick a more direct, and lustrous Diana. The complicating sub-plot of the latter’s secret infatuation with the shepherd Endimione is largely cut in this production, but enough remains for a cool, smooth-voiced account by Brian McAlea, corresponding to his deadpan delivery of the comic routines given to him.
The other parts similarly combine distinctive musical attributes with deft acting that holds the attention, making the intricacies of the plot intelligible, as well as providing thoughtful entertainment. Although hardly an authentic interpretation of the work, it does justice to the genius and spirit of Cavalli’s drama, as well as reminding of the wealth of diverse operatic repertoire between Monteverdi and Handel, still largely awaiting exploration.