At the Wigmore Hall, London an outstanding Cavalli La Calisto, with La Nuova Musica, La Nuova Musica enliven their work with the same adventurous spirit that one imagines would have motivated 17th century Venetian audiences. Historically informed performance isn't merely a matter of avoiding vibrato, but of understanding the spirit of the times. Venice in 1651 was an exciting place, the go-ahead centre of the Mediterranean world. Opera itself was a "new" art, still evolving, and Venetian audiences were very sophisticated. La Nuova Musica's La Calisto was vibrant with energetic verve a tightly-focussed performance, where the filigree intricacies could shine.
La Calisto is mythological allegory, but the characters are defined with dramatic flair. Calisto (Lucy Crowe) is a beautiful nymph, a handmaiden of Diana, (Jurgita Adamontyé) whose acolytes are sworn to virginity. Giove, (George Humphreys) tries to seduce her to no avail, until he disguises himself as Diana. Calisto, having tasted lust, can't understand why the "real" Diana despises sex. Everyone else is trying to seduce Diana, with no luck. Although the reason might be obvious to us now, I don't think we can rule out the possibility that the ancient Greeks didn't know, given their tolerance for same sex relationships. Chances are, the point wasn't lost either on 17th century Venetians. . Like Cavalli's other operas, (Please read my piece Crazier than Jason, Cavalli's Elena) gender bending and illicit love gave audiences a naughty frisson. Calisto talks about "Diana's kisses" to an older woman, played by a man Endymione (Tim Mead) a counter tenor. manages to seduce the asexual Diana For this, she's maligned for being fickle ! Giove as the fake Diana, learns from Endymione that Diana isn't as pure as he thought. Giove as Diana tries to seduce Calisto again but his wife Giunone (Rachel Kelly) won't have any fooling around and turns Calisto into a bear.
La Nuova Musica, conducted by David Bates, had perhaps the finest specialist cast in this country, thus,wisely concentrated focus on the performance, not the staging. Thus we could enjoy detail, like the way different voices came together at the end of a line, hovering together before falling silent. We could also focus on the variety of musical invention, sometimes sublime and at other times, deliberately grotesque I love the dance sequences. You could luxuriate in the sheer beauty of the singing and playing, delighting in details like the flourish of a harpsichord, seemingly wayward but very much integrated into the ensemble : the joker in the pack, perhaps, for La Calisto is funny: serious ideas tackled with irreverent wit. Listen here on BBC Radio 3 for approx 30 days.
Please also see my piece oin La Nuova Musicas's Cesti Orontea at the Wigmore Hall
Cavalli operas seem to need high standards. Although La Calisto is almost mainstream these days, I don't think anything but the idiomatic best does them justice. There is a wonderful DVD with René Jacobs and Concerto Vocale, recorded at La Monnaie in March 1996. . Staging was by Herbert Wernicke, demonized by anti-moderns, but it's brilliant. The stage is small and claustrophobic, like the enclosed world of the gods. But the characters look out on stars, and rise up into the rafters borne aloft by pulleys. Stars and spangles all over the costumes too : the image of "night" illuminated by wonder.