It was a great surprise to me to find that a composer I’d never heard of a year ago suddenly had not one, but two of his operas being performed within the space of months. It’s odd, too, that after a decade of seeing Baroque operas at least twice annually, not once had I heard of Francesco Cavalli. I got an initial taste with Ormindo as presented at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse: it was fluffy but with lots of beautiful singing, exciting dramatic moments, and all sorts of counter-tenor action. Still, I wound up leaving before the third act. Would Hampstead Garden Opera’s production of his La Calisto suffer similarly?
As it turns out, La Calisto was one of the liveliest baroque operas I’ve ever seen, with short, fast moving acts that reminded me of an upscale Xena episode scored for the harpsichord. The characters and scenes were all familiar ones from mythology 101; lecherous Jove, gullible Callisto, angry Juno – but we had the addition of a guilt-ridden Diana and a genuinely noble shepherd. I enjoyed the interplay of the familiar and the modified – it made me more invested in the story. Theresa Pells was terribly charismatic as Callisto, with her rangy build and gorgeous red hair; very Hunger Games meets The Bacchae. But still, you couldn’t help but cheer for straight-from-the-playbook Juno (Philippa Boyle) as she came in in her glorious spangled black dress with a cape of irridescent feathers – what slip of a girl, no matter how dedicated to her path, could stand against her? I found it all very exciting.
However, it’s not just about looks when you’re at the opera – though for me, capturing my imagination is key to getting me to sit back and enjoy the music. The lightly designed set was ideal for this – it was a desert, it was a cave, it was a love bower – I loved the choice to let less say more. The opposite approach was taken for the orchestra, with which about 10 musicians was positively crammed into the minute space they occupied. Unfortunately, they suffered a bit in comparison to the ones I heard at my recent trip to the Sam Wanamaker – but it’s a bit unfair to compare an orchestra picked to accompany a Royal Opera production with this group of much younger performers. Still, the tempi was occasionally off, and I heard a few more sour notes than I expected (period instruments can be very temperamental – I swear the intervals would be called for just to do retuning if nothing else).
Amongst the singers, the standout to me was was Peter Brooke as Jove, whose creamy bass voice seemed to call for a fork and perhaps a few strawberries. He showed a real comic talent, nicely breaking into a falsetto when playing Diana, and later looking quite contrite when wooed in mistake by Diana’s (male) paramour. He did it all with a great sense of timing and self-awareness – this opera is meant to be funny and Jove’s behavior is worth giggling at, but if it were taken too far it would have been distracting. Pells was unfortunately not as strong in her role, and struggled a bit with the vocal ornamentation in some of the more throwaway bit of the music. Still, these moments were neither off-key or in any other way grating, and during the moments when her character’s singing was at the front, she was a pleasure to listen to. My thought is that with more work in this musical specialism she’ll likely improve, but that she was so generally outstanding (especially as a dramatic performer) that mine is just a quibble. Overall, my first outing to the Hampstead Garden Opera was a real success, and, which I never expected to be sitting listening to a theorbo in the same place where I’d seen Guys and Dolls, the venue itself proved to be exactly the intimate sort in which Baroque music thrives best.
(This review is for a matinee performance that took place on Sunday, April 27th, 2014. It continues through May 4th.)