La Calisto’s fun, games and misty eyes (Wigmore Hall, 28 November 2016)
In the time of ancient gods, warlords and kings… an unstoppable plague spread through the land and crept up Mount Olympus, infecting it for all eternity. Its name was horniness.
Another thing Wigmore Hall has been doing lately is cramming 10 singers or so and a Baroque ensemble on its crescent stage for our enjoyment. I’m all in favour of this arguably cramped arrangement! Of course you are, you might say, it’s not you squeezing between an organ and a double bass with a giant bear mask on your face. Imagine being chased by satyrs and trying not to upset the music stands when making a mad, chastity-preserving dash for the back of the stalls!
Calisto: Lucy Crowe soprano
Giove: George Humphreys bass
Diana: Jurgita Adamonyté mezzo-soprano
Endimione: Tim Mead countertenor
Giunone: Rachel Kelly mezzo-soprano
Mercurio: James Newby baritone
Pane: Andrew Tortise tenor
Linfea: Sam Furness tenor
Satirino: Jake Arditti countertenor
Silvano: Edward Grint bass-baritone
David Bates director | La Nuova Musica
I always forget to check these things, otherwise I’d have flagged it out for non Radio 3 listeners but this performance was broadcasted live (and you can still listen to it here for the next month). The interesting thing is that it comes exactly 365 years (to the day) after its first performance in Venice. Had you heard the broadcast, you might’ve been perplexed by the laughter and grunts that accompanied the dances. Wigmore Hall gets another cookie from me – I don’t lavish enough praise and cash on it, I know – for its continuous determination to keep Baroque and Baroque opera fun.
As we know by now, 17th century tastes did not ask librettists to choose either tragedy or comedy when writing an opera. As a result we have both, usually with the main, spiritually – if not by birth – “noble” character getting a raw deal but eliciting our sympathy and respect and the lesser ranks having all the fun and making it alive by the end of the opera.
Another thing 17th century librettists are good at is not spoon feeding us morality. You should know which path to follow, with the understanding that cheating and lying will be more amusing… for the public, of course.
Like Semele, Calisto is a babe who catches The Universal Cheater’s eye. Only she’s sworn to Diana, the goddess of hunt1 and chastity (in Ancient Greek parlance, no sex with men). She takes her vows very seriously indeed, because she not only likes Diana but likes her. Yes, she’s – at least initially – one step further up the Kinsey scale than Daphne2.
Who wouldn’t like like Diana, the goddess whose job is to roam the countryside on horseback, keeping the ecosystem healthy and balanced? She has no time for petty intrigue and usually stays out of politics, unlike 95% of that backstabbing Ancient Greek lot of gods. Endimione (a shepherd who constantly misplaces his sheep due to his poetic musings and heaving bosom) and Pane, the goat-god of randiness, both showing better taste than one would give them credit for at first sight, are also in hot pursuit.
Of course Ancient Greeks and 17th century Venetians didn’t see gay desire quite the same way we do today; in the end, this is not the ultimate lesbian story, with Diana and Calisto some sort of Xena and Gabrielle righting wrongs and having fun in hot springs, although there is plenty of passion and danger. Major missed opportunity if ever there was one, but we 21st century folk are made of sturdier stuff and can work with what life gives us (if it’s subtext, imagine fanfic). A couple of tears rolled down my cheeks at the end but you know I’d lie if I said act I wasn’t where it was at for me.
Anyway, there’s singing. The original cast had three replacements due to illness yet the evening was very energetic nonetheless. As I was saying to Leander, the men had an edge over the women but then they had all the fun stuff to sing/do! Endimione was the only man with languidly soppy arias (the best part was when Diana, though in this version she’s really into him, left him prey3 to Pane and Silvano; Mead as Endimione had this great expression on his face omg, Diana! You don’t suppose I should fight these brutes, do you?!). We also commented that perhaps one day we’d see Mead as something else than the soulful lover. Not that he isn’t good at it, which is perhaps why he keeps singing these ancient r’n’b dreamboats. In fact one extended bit he had (about love, of course) made for possibly the best singing of the evening.
A big standout was Arditti as Satirino (accessoried with fake goatee), who did his stellar best to be randy and obnoxious, both dramatically and in the elaborate and cleverly placed trills he employed. He and Furness as the horny Diana-devotee Linfea probably had the most fun, culminating in that mad chase around the auditorium, which ended with Satirino stealing Linfea’s bra (which Linfea snatched back at curtain call). For his part, Furness brought back his considerable cross-gender chops, last noticed by yours truly in last year’s Orontea on the very same stage. He has a very mobile face, ideally suited for this kind of silliness, contrasted by an agile yet manly voice.
Humphreys replaced James Platt as the philandering Giove. He was very good as Giove but hilarious as Fake Diana. He had to ride falsetto for half his performance and did so commendably and with lots of gusto. Then again, with lines like to the kisses! to the kisses! it’s hard to go wrong. Poor Calisto had no chance.
Calisto herself has really serious things to sing because, well, she’s in a very serious situation, with the Big Kahuna of the Ancient World on her tail. Crowe isn’t someone I naturally “get” and here I’d have liked more winky swooniness in her interaction with Diana. That’s the one bit where Calisto is other than confused or hurt or faced with the reality of having one vision of heaven before spending eternity as celestial bear. I’m sure there’s some ancient meaning for the bear thing, though for modern sensibilites (this side of plushies) the simile seems a bit curious.
Adamonyté’s Diana wasn’t bad for a heterosexual reading of the text (though it’s really hard to “think straight” before intermission and generally to imagine Diana in a gown) and showed a very nice tone and good authority as goddess. She was gentle then stern with Calisto, furious with them goats and rather giddy with Endimione.
In act II we have Giunone getting up to speed on Hubby of the Year’s shenanigans. She’s not happy. After Leander told me ETO had Giunone in their production show up in leather, sporting a riding crop, I wasn’t going to hold the image that lived in my mind against Kelly. Her Giunone was upset all right, though perhaps riding crop furious comes with age and a lot of philandering husband experience.
David Bates led la Nuova Musica and his soloists with speedy tempi and enough cuts not to let anyone flag save for the gent in front of me, but that was fortunate 😉 I was also placed in the cheery corner, with two ladies next to me laughing like there was no tomorrow. Although when I looked behind me for the chastity preservation dance I saw some perplexed faces. Should we laugh or should we purse our lips and interlace our fingers in our lap? Yes, of course we should laugh, especially with such a good translation and with such a fun crew. May we hear more laughs and silliness at Wigmore Hall!
- Hunt and chastity? Hunt? Shouldn’t that be “teasing and chastity” then? ↩
- Who likes trees instead of men. Trees? I know I’m fishing, but that would be a pretty decent metaphor for vibrators. So I’d say Daphne is questioning where Calisto is ardently bicurious. ↩
- Because she clearly has her own issues -> duty/love. ↩