This new production of La Calisto is a double first. Never before has a work by Francesco Cavalli been performed at the Royal Opera and, by shipping over David Alden's 2005 Munich production, this also represents the American director's Covent Garden debut.
It's a bold move in both regards but although Cavalli's work – an astonishing masterpiece of mid-seventeenth century Venetian opera – manages to dazzle with its wit and humanity, it does so in spite of Alden's production, a tedious mishmash of puerile humour and superficiality.
First performed in November 1651, La Calisto was the penultimate and arguably greatest collaboration between Cavalli and his librettist and impresario Giovanni Faustini. For a variety of reasons, though, it was something of a flop at its first run. Racy even for the liberal audiences who flocked each year to the carnival in Venice, the plot, based on a story from Ovid's Metamorphoses, revolves around Jupiter/Giove's lust for Calisto, an exceptionally beautiful nymph in the entourage of Diana, goddess of chastity and duty. Initially rebuffed, Giove disguises himself as Diana and manages to lure Calisto into a grotto to have his way with her. Calisto, in raptures, later approaches Diana herself speaking of their tryst and is condemned first by Diana, then by a jealous Juno (Giunone), who, looking for her cheating husband, comes across his latest conquest and punishes her by turning her into a bear. There's a rich array of subplots, serious and comic, and the other characters are variously linked, but Calisto ends up receiving redemption of sorts as Giove elevates her to the stars as Ursa Major.
An article in the programme offers an assessment of Alden's production, which the director himself says 'represents the apotheosis of a visual style of work I've been developing with my long-time collaborators Paul Steinberg (set designer) and Buki Shiff (costumes).' He adds that 'opera was a visual event in those early days. It was as much a visual event as a musical event. I would say my style is extremely visual. It is certainly not Spartan. It is always about the visuals.' Elsewhere he says 'La Calisto is a crazy sex-comedy written for the Venetian Carnival season, but a sublime sex-comedy'. However, his obvious obsession with the visual – which manifests itself in garish sets and lighting, littering the stage with actors in animal costumes or nymphettes in leopard-skin cat-suits and mini-skirts – removes any sense of the sublime.
In his attempt to make the story relevant to modern spectators, by drawing parallels between Calisto and Marylin Monroe, for example, Alden both patronises the audience by underestimating its ability to identify with the world of mythology and ends up creating a hopeless feeling of confusion. Similarly, Faustini had removed the original idea in Ovid of Calisto bearing a child by Giove but, for purely visual reasons it seems, Alden reintroduces it and the drama of Giunone's incantation is wiped out as the focus shifts onto this child. Calisto's metamorphosis is severely diluted and this in turn removes all the astronomical neatness of her final ascent to the heavens.
Alden also makes the mistake of deciding, it seems, that the modern audience represents some sort of tabula rasa which not only has no points of reference for the classical allusions that run through the work, but no points of reference of its own. However, when Calisto first appears in leopard-skin swim-suit and see-through tutu – laden with modern connotations – it's impossible to perceive her as a symbol of purity. Fatally, then, we fail to sympathise with the loss of that purity and innocence; the production in this instance actively working against the delicately drawn beauty of Cavalli's music.
Granted, there are plenty of laughs, but too many of these – Satirino's prosthetic penis or the suggestion that Endimione ejaculates during a duet with Diana – are cheaply daubed on, obscuring humour that already exists all through Faustini's libretto. Cavalli's music is similarly gaudily highlighted by juvenile dances, or worst of all, by flashing lights at Calisto's elevation to stellar status. Above all, though, it's a production that is simply tawdry and tiring to look at, depressingly superficial and heartless.
At the heart of the performance was the unfortunate irony that, musically speaking, we were presented with a relatively sober account of the work. Alden and conductor Ivor Bolton have made the decision to eschew the fuller expansions of Cavalli's famously skeletal score favoured by Raymond Leppard and, more recently, René Jacobs. The Monteverdi Continuo Ensemble, augmented with a handful of musicians from the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, therefore improvised with notable economy and the texture was often extremely bare. There were times when I felt that a better balance would have been achieved if some of the excessive colour on the stage had been employed in fleshing out what was going on in the pit. As it was, the gulf between the chaste purity of Bolton's vision of the music and the gaudy clutter of the production seemed too great to bridge.
The cast, a wholesale import from the Munich production (either from the original 2005 cast, or from subsequent revivals in 2006 and 2007), is unsurprisingly a slick, well-rehearsed unit. Sally Matthews, in the title role, looked every bit the object of divine lust and her bright, clear soprano often sounded wonderful, managing through purely musical means to elicit sympathy. As Endimione, besotted with Diana, counter-tenor Lawrence Zazzo was outstanding, both his contributions and those of Veronique Gens' moving Giunone provided welcome oases of genuine emotion. Dominique Visse turned in a virtuoso performance as Satirino and his scenes with Guy de Mey's drag-act Linfea were sharply choreographed and funny. Umberto Chiummo's Giove could have done with a bit more bass resonance when singing as himself and the solution to his singing when disguised as Diana – half of it lip-synched, half sung falsetto by Chiummo himself – was not always entirely convincing. He acted extremely well, though, even if little was done to explain his already complicated motives throughout the work.
Other roles were filled by the British pair of Ed Lyon and Clive Bayley as an impetuous Pane (with more than a hint of Wagner's ineffectual Rheingold gods) and a very strongly sung Silvano respectively. Markus Werba's scheming and duplicitous Mercurio and Monica Bacelli's impassioned Diana completed the picture, along with a large cast of variously attired extras; several of whom, in suits, were also called upon to effect the scene changes.
Cavalli's belated debut at the Royal Opera was for me a strangely frustrating event. Alden credits La Calisto with an ability to speak with eloquence and power to a modern audience but his production betrays a belief that it cannot do so with out significant help; unfortunately, his attempts to help fatally undermine that ability. It's a rare staging of a masterly opera and an opportunity that's not to be missed, but a production that does Cavalli very few favours.
By Hugo Shirley
La Calisto runs until 10 October at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
For details see the ROH website
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