Tuesday 29 November 2016

La Calisto at the Wigmore Hall

La Calisto
Francesco Cavalli La Calisto; Lucy Crowe, George Humphreys, Jurgita Adamonyté, Tim Mead, Rachel Kelly, James Newby, Andrew Tortise, Sam Furness, Jake Arditti, Edward Grint, La Nuova Musica, David Bates; the wigmore Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Nov 28 2016
Star rating: 4.5

Highly theatrical yet finely musical concert performance of Cavalli's opera

La Calisto was Francesco Cavalli's eleventh opera and certainly not his most successful but, perhaps because it came to prominence as a result of Glyndebourne's early revival of the work in 1970, the opera remains one of Cavalli's most revived opera in modern times. Of course, that does not mean that it easy to bring off in performance. David Bates and La Nuova Musica gave themselves an extra challenge when performing the work at the Wigmore Hall on Monday 28 November 2016, as it was being given in a concert performance, though in fact the group's lively and imaginative approach to 'staging' and keen attention to musicality meant the performance really took wing.

There had been cast changes, some last minute, with George Humphreys coming in as Giove rather late. Lucy Crowe played Calisto, with Jurgita Adamonyté as Diana, Tim Mead as Endimione, Rachel Kelly as Giunone, James Newby as Mercurio, Andrew Tortise as Pane, Sam Furness as Linfea, Jake Arditti as Satirino and Edward Grint as Silvano.

The small instrumental ensemble consisted of Oliver Webber and Miki Takahasi violins, Judith Evans violone, Jonathan Rees and Ibrahim Aziz violas da gamba, David Miller theorbo, and Frances Kelly harp, directed from the harpsichord and organ by David Bates.

The libretto, by Cavalli's regular collaborator Giovanni Faustini, is extremely schematic but it provided the right mix of high art, opportunities for luscious melodies and low comedy. Premiered in 1651, the work was the result of the development of commercial opera houses in Venice, so the works needed to be relatively compact (no large orchestras) and have the right mix to attract audiences. In La Calisto there are two main couples, Diana (Jurgita Adamonyté) and Endimione (Tim Mead) whose romance is frustrated because the goddess Diana has to be chaste, and Giove (George Humphreys) and Calisto (Lucy Crowe), add to the mix Giunone (Rachel Kelly), Giove's jealous wife, and Mercurio (James Newby), Giove's side-kick. Around these characters circle a group of lesser beings whose appetites are far earthier, providing the low comedy, Pane (Andrew Tortise), the god Pan also in love with Diana, Linfea (Sam Furness), Diana's handmaid who is frustrated by her chastity, the lecherous Satirino (Jake Arditti) and Silvano (Edward Grint).

An interesting wrinkle in the plot of La Calisto is that Giove seduces Calisto by taking the form of Diana (Calisto is one of Diana's votresses). This means that Giove is the only character who straddles the serious and the comic, all the other characters though they interact remain firmly either comic or serious. The role of Giove was originally written for a bass who could also sing in the falsetto register when Diana (thus adding to the low comedy), and rather admirably this is what George Humphreys did, appearing in a frock and wig as well, looking positively alarming (Humphreys is a very tall man). His falsetto was impressively serviceable, though challenged at times by the high tessitura, but the result really brought the mix of comedy and tragedy to life. Elsewhere in the plot, Sam Furness was equally impressive in the transvestite role of Linfea, combining a sense of comedy with a fine feel for the music.

This was one of the delights of this performance, the comic elements were really brought out in lively fashion yet the musical values were never neglected.
Jake Arditti's Satirino might chase Sam Furness's Linfea around the Wigmore Hall auditorium, but neither neglected the beauties of Cavalli's music. Some productions take the opera a little too seriously because of this, some of the music written for Giove as Diana and Calisto is profoundly beautiful yet it is rendered delightfully disturbing when one of the characters is a man badly disguised in a frock.

At the centre of everything was Lucy Crowe's wonderful Calisto, growing from wonder to love to disillusion. Crowe's highly plangent voice brought great beauty to the arias which Cavalli gives his heroine, yet her demeanour and performance gave the music great intensity too. This was a highly concentrated performance, the still centre of a web of chaos. Equally impressive was Tim Mead's Endimione, a character who is permanently love-sick and Mead captured this in his series of eloquent laments.

Giove and Mercurio form very much a double act, and it was great credit to George Humphreys and James Newby conveyed so much on such a small stage. Newby was a master of the discreet but telling reaction. He is only 23, and won the 2016 Kathleen Ferrier Award, and is certainly a singer to watch.

Jurgita Adamonyté was impressive as Diana, wonderfully fierce in the defence of chastity yet melting at the sight of Mead's Endimione. Rachel Kelly wisely took the character of Giunone completely seriously, making her jealousy something intensely expressive rather than an object of comic interest. Andrew Tortise's Pane was perhaps more serious than the composer and librettist intended, yet this was no fault of Tortise. The character is as love-sick as Endimione, but Pane is ugly. But in concert performance with Pane's love-sick laments beautifully delivered by the personable Tortise the result was less comic, yet we could certainly enjoy Tortise's way with the music. Jake Arditti's wonderful Satirino was certainly comic, Arditti really inhabited the role and the high tessitura seemed to have no fears for him. Edward Grint made the most of the small but telling role of Silvano.

At the end of Act One, and unknown dancer wearing a very striking bear's head danced expressively around the auditorium during the final ritornello. He returned at the end of the opera, placing the bears head on Lucy Crowe's Calisto and led her off the stage, a rather lovely touch.

Despite Cavalli's luscious melodies (including a melting final duet for Giove and Calisto which resembles the closing duet from Monteverdi's L'Incoronazione di Poppea), there is a lot a recitative in this opera. And both singers and instrumentalists really brought it alive, the alert accompaniment from the wide array of continuo instruments complementing the lively dialogue from the singers. Whilst there were superb solo moments, the whole was very much a strong ensemble piece. All was directed in a lively and alert manner by David Bates, his having his back to the singers did not prevent him giving detailed direction and really shaping the music.

There was something of a mis-match between Rick Jones' excellent programme note and the opera we heard. Jones' synopsis included the prologue (which was omitted in the performance) and the scenes in the last act did not quite tally. Perhaps more problematically, the Wigmore Hall is not an ideal space for staged performance with surtitles. In terms of size it closely models the small theatres of Cavalli's day, but without a rake the seats towards the rear of the auditorium had a mixed view. We sat in row S, and whilst I had an adequate view of the action and surtitles, my companion D. found that his view was generally blocked.

The performance showed that Cavalli's highly theatrical operas can be brought to life with energy and musicality without the necessity of striking theatrical effects. This was highly engaging musical theatre, and I do hope we hear more in this vein from La Nuova Musica.

The opera was broadcast life by BBC Radio 3 and can be heard for 30 days on BBC iPlayer.

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