La Calisto of 1651 was written at a time when the notion of creating opera that could make money was still fairly new. This goes a long way to explaining its nature because Cavalli and his librettist Giovanni Faustini had the idea of taking several mythological stories with nothing in common, other than featuring the same characters, and combining them for comic effect. In this way they could entertain people by using tales they already knew, before playing around with them to feature mix-ups, mistaken identities, cross-dressing and even a few goats!
Timothy Nelson seems to have played a part in every aspect of this new production for English Touring Opera as he prepared the score and produced the English libretto (with Anne Ridler) before directing and conducting it. His total mastery and understanding of the opera comes across in every aspect of the performance, which brings out the storylines clearly while exploring their many sub-texts through a host of subtle details.
Takis’ set consists of a series of twisted, intercrossing poles. With cogwheels and steering wheels hanging from these, they clearly represent flowers and trees, but the fact that they are entirely metal, and hence barren and lifeless, highlights the scorched nature of the earth following Giove’s burning of it. Dusty, rusting trolleys stand all around while the front of the stage features desk lamps, which feel anthropomorphic as their ‘necks’ bend and crane, and allude to the footlights that might normally be found in that position.
Characters descend from the heavens by coming down a slide, and ascend by being jacked up on pneumatic platforms. Endimione tries to get as close as possible to the moon Diana by piling up the various objects strewn around, but the most clever thing about the set is just how different it seems when the light, courtesy of Mark Howland, changes. Although the same structure remains as a constant throughout the evening, the projection of greens gives it a psychedelic feel, suggesting that the giant flowers are now growing, and makes the set feel as full of life as the red light at the start made it look like a wasteland.
The costumes cover many different eras, thus introducing variety and interest and helping to delineate the different ‘classes’ of character. Giove and Mercurio sport broadly eighteenth century clothes, although the latter’s has modern sparkly sequins, while Calisto could be a Pre-Raphaelite Elizabeth Siddal. Diana and Linfea are given broadly classical dress that could make them look Botticellian, or perhaps like Druids as illustrated by later English artists. The half-goats are ‘bling kings’, adorned with gold and huge trousers, but the most intriguing costume is that of Endimione who is portrayed as Einstein. Nelson firmly believes that Cavalli and Faustini intended Endimione to signify Galileo, because they refer to the shepherd as an astronomer when classical mythology never did so. He felt, however, that presenting that scientist would not provide a relatable image for a modern audience, and so Endimione takes on the persona of Einstein as an equivalent that works for us today.
The staging is dynamic, and there is a fair dose of bawdy humour for which the original is entirely responsible! Although the performance is in English (screens offer scene descriptions but not full surtitles) Nelson is adamant that the translation reproduces exactly what was in the Italian libretto. Visual jokes include Linfea suggestively peeling a banana, and tugging on Satirino’s tail as it is caught between the latter’s legs, while other gags carry a modern day twist. For example, Silvano employs coconut shells to signify the goats’ clip-clopping sound, but this resonates with us because it recalls Monty Python and the Holy Grail, which made a joke out of the fact that the film’s budget would not stretch to horses.
Nelson conducts superbly, and the orchestra, The Old Street Band, reproduces almost exactly what Cavalli intended with just recorders and a lirone being added to the instruments that he prescribed. The cast is strong, with particular accolades going to Catherine Carby whose full and rounded mezzo-soprano is perfect for Diana, and Katie Bray whose assertive sound as Satirino never stops it from being sweet, as well as to Paula Sides as Calisto, George Humphreys as Giove, Nick Pritchard as Mercurio and Adrian Dwyer as Linfea.
After this week English Touring Opera will continue to tour its four current productions, Xerxes, La Calisto, Ulysses’ Homecoming and the St John Passion, around the country. For full details of venues and dates visit the English Touring Opera website.