Cavalli: La Calisto

Francesco Cavalli: La Calisto
Ensemble OrQuesta, Marcio da Silva

Cockpit Theatre, 31 January 2020

I arranged to see Cavalli’s La Calisto on the evening of the UK’s Brexit, sandwiching it between two pro-EU vigils in central London. I thought it would take my mind off the goings-on in Parliament Square, but soon had second thoughts. It opens with a Prologue where Nature, Eternity and Destiny meet to decide whether any humans are worthy of elevation to everlasting fame and divinity – a glory for which some humans actively promote themselves. The opera proper starts after the earth has been mistakenly destroyed by poor decision making by the powers that be. Giove arrives with his side-kick Mercurio to take back control and “restore calm to earth”. He finds the nymph Calisto in a deep depression at the sad state of things, and promptly tries to seduce her. It is soon apparent that Giove is a serial philanderer, adulterer and a serial liar of monumental proportions. So much for taking my mind off current political things.

Image may contain: 2 peopleGiove & Calisto (John Holland-Avery & Helen May)

The world of opera is a curious one. Normally seen as the preserve of the wealthy, it’s image can understandably put a lot of people off. It can be extraordinarily expensive to produce – and usually to see. But in recent years there have been a number of opera companies producing small-scale opera at more realistic production costs and ticket prices in less traditional venues. One such is Ensemble OrQuesta who produced and performed this La Calista at The Cockpit Theatre. With tickets at £17 (£12 concessions), this was opera available to all and with a commendably high musical standard to boot.

Image may contain: 3 people, nightSatirino, Pane & Silvano
(Kathleen Nic Dhiarmada, Kieran White & Silvano Timothy Patrick)

The Cockpit Theatre is a small square black-box affair, for this production with seating on three sides of a central area. The fourth side was used as an extension to the central stage, with a large chair at its centre, a screen that looked like harp strings, and projected surtitles above. The small group of musicians filled one of the stage entries, with the other three used throughout the performance. The tiny ‘orchestra’ consisted of two violins and a busy continuo group of harpsichord, cello and archlute with the occasional addition of a baroque guitar and an (electronic) organ.

Although many performances of La Calisto use much larger instrumental forces in the continuo group, these small forces were entirely appropriate and sounded well in the space. Harpsichordist Kieran Staub had a key role as musical director. He was positioned with his back to the singers but I didn’t notice any lack of coordination between him and the singers, who could easily see the theorbo player and cellist.

Mercurio & Giove (Marcio da Silva & John Holland-Avery)

Stage direction was by Marcio da Silva (who also sang the role of Mercurio and joined the orchestra for occasional contributions) and Madeline Claire de Berrie. Given the circumstances of the space and budget, their staging was very impressive. The only props were a chair, a few boxes, a birdcage and some twigs, used variously to represent flowing water as well as forming part of the costumes for several of the singers.

Vocally, all 11 singers impressed, as they did in their acting ability. A number of singers are still students. It would be invidious to pick out specific singers in what was clearly a collaborative enterprise, but Helen May as Calisto and Kathleen Nic Dhiarmada as Satirino and the Prologue’s L’Eternita deserve special mention for their singing and acting ability. The full cast list is given below.

Image may contain: 2 people, people standingLinfea & Satirino (Victoria Mulley & Kathleen Nic Dhiarmada)

La Calisto was first performed during the carnival season in 1651 in Venice’s Teatro Sant ‘Apollinare. Faustini’s libretto combines the two myths of the seduction of the nymph Calisto by Jupiter/Giove and Diana’s dalliance with the shepherd Endimione. The plotline is not the most imaginative in opera history, but Faustino’s libretto introduces a number of side stories. It mixes serious takes on several human conditions but is enlivened by several lighter moments, all dealt with well in this production. The scene where Calisto is turned into a bear by the ever-jealous Giunone (Juno) was downplayed, as was the eventual transformation of Calisto into the constellation of Ursa Major (the Great Bear) doomed to never set below the horizon. I saw a production in Austria in an open courtyard when, just at that key moment, the clouds parted above to reveal Ursa Major itself – or should it be herself.

Diana (Isabelle Haile)

So full marks to a young and enterprising opera company bring top class music to a classless audience.

Stage/Music Director Marcio da Silva
Music Director/Harpsichord Kieran Staub
Assistant Stage Director Madeline Claire de Berrie

Archlute/Baroque Guitar Cédric Meyer
Violin Ada Witczyk, Eloise MacDonald
Cello Erlend Vestby

Calisto Helen May
Giove John Holland-Avery
Endimione Eric Schlossberg
Diana Isabelle Haile
Giunone Rosemary Carlton-Willis
Linfea Victoria Mulley
Satirino Kathleen Nic Dhiarmada
Mercurio Marcio da Silva
Pane Kieran White
Silvano Timothy Patrick

Photos: Julian Guidera