La Calisto, first performed in Venice in 1651, is the earliest opera ever to be staged at the Royal Opera House – and, in David Alden’s production, undoubtedly one of the zaniest.
Cavalli’s version of the Ovidian myth, with its cast of lustful gods, Sapphic virgins, libidinous half-animals and a brown bear seems a good choice to win over any patrons anxious about acres of arid seventeenth-century recitative.
The story tells of Jove’s lust for the beautiful nymph Calisto, a follower of the chaste moon goddess Diana. To seduce her, Jove disguises himself as Diana; he then succeeds in having his way with her under the cover of a cave, in a bizarre transgender-lesbian tryst. Juno, jealous as usual, punishes Calisto by transforming her into a bear, before Jove finally takes pity on her and grants her a place in the night sky as the constellation Ursa Major.
In this production – new to Covent Garden but first seen in Munich in 2005 – the director, David Alden, takes the piece’s zany qualities to heart, and the show wears zaniness on its sleeve at every opportunity. Paul Steinberg’s set is a riot of colours, patterns and textures, over which hangs what looks like the carcass of a Dr Who Dalek. The costumes (Buki Shiff) are similarly wildly imaginative; Calisto and the troupe of virgin huntresses cut a seductive dash in animal prints and designer accessories, while Pan and his rustic companions cavort in mohair trousers around a cocktail bar. Seventeenth-century Arcadia is many moons away.
It is a treat to have a conductor and cast that have remained virtually unchanged since the production’s first outing: the feeling of ensemble is very strong, and the interaction between the various characters – for example where one character on stage mouths words sung by another from the pit – has clearly benefited from the cast’s previous collaborations.
Several familiar names associated with the European early-music scene bring distinguished contributions – Veronique Gens sings with great elegance as Juno and retained her statuesque composure even when controlling her two (beautifully costumed) peacocks. Dominique Visse brings his tremendous comic imagination and telling knowledge of musical style to the role of Satirino, and his scenes with Guy de Mey’s hilariously repressed Linfea work extremely well.
Sally Matthews looks and sounds beautiful in the title role – dispatching virtuosic vocal ornamentation and seeming equally at home with Alden’s strenuous physical demands. The cast is altogether excellent, and Ivor Bolton leads a fabulously coloured and sensitive performance from the Monteverdi Continuo Ensemble (three cheers for importing a group that specialises in this repertoire).
The production is certainly entertaining – but the frenetic activity can be a distraction. Cavalli’s wonderfully expressive harmonies often do not have space to register amid the gyrating sofas, flashing neon bulbs and artificial palm trees; and something is wrong when the sound ringing in my ears at the end of the first half is the clatter of plastic cocktail glasses.
I had also hoped for something lyrical for the vision of Calisto’s apotheosis – the flashing lights of the Dalek carcass seemed cheap to describe the twinkling of a new star in the heavens. And shouldn’t the relationship between Diana and the poor moonstruck Endimione (Lawrence Zazzo) have a more touching quality? Unfortunately, Monica Bacelli’s hammy gesticulations as the moon goddess and a crass directorial joke (involving her wiping her hands on her dress after a particularly erotic moment) spoilt the atmosphere of the pair’s nocturnal tryst.
Amid the Eros and entertainment here, there’s definitely room for more poetry.