New Chamber Opera’s production of Francesco Cavalli’s La Calisto is excellently sung and extremely funny. Giovanni Faustini’s libretto tells the story of the virgin nymph, Calisto, who is seduced by Jove (Giove) in the guise of the goddess Diana. In the meantime, the real Diana is caught between her desire for the shepherd Edimione and her role as the virgin godess, leading to the jealous rage of the God Pan (Pane) who desires Diana himself. Jove’s wife, Juno (Giunone) comes down to earth chasing rumours of her husband’s infidelity, and discovers Calisto. Realising that this is her husband’s new mistress (though Calisto is unaware she knows this), Juno turns Calisto into a bear. Unable to reverse the transformation, Jove promises Calisto a place among the stars, and she becomes the constellation now known as Ursa Minor (the little bear). Mistaken identity and confusion abound, but in the end all the lovers are united and Olympus and Earth restored to proper order. The English translation of the libretto by Geoffry Dunn preserves the humour and the sex of Faustini’s. It was also a good decision to play the sometimes confusing en travesti parts for comedic effect. The nymph Lynfea – a comic shepherdess who spends the opera singing about her desire for a husband who will share her bed – was acted and sung brilliantly by Timothy Coleman. Satirino (little satyr – sung by Annie Hamilton) offers himself as a partner to Lynfea, only to be rejected, resulting in a scene that left many members of the audience laughing helplessly.
An excellent standard of singing and acting extended to the rest of the cast. David le Prevost as Mercury and Sylvano goes from strength to strength with both highly musical singing and engaging characterisation, and Brian McAlea as Jove and Pan has an impressively mature voice that easily conveyed his role as the king of the gods. Lucy Cox’s rendition of Calisto was very beautifully sung, with a gorgeous tone throughout her range and sensitive ornamentation. However, her dramatic rendering of the part left something to be desired, especially next to Johanna Harrison’s skilled portrayal of the two “Dianas”. In comparison to these experienced singers, Tom Dixon and Annie Hamilton seemed a little immature. Hamilton has a promising voice, but one that currently lacks the maturity to hold its own in this ensemble. Dixon acted very well, but also needs a little more experience of operatic performance to be truly vocally engaging.
Past reviews have picked up on how difficult it can be to effectively stage an opera in the New College ante-chapel, but Michael Burden did well in keeping things simple with the production. Judicious cutting kept the action well paced (though should have perhaps been better reflected in the scene synopsis provided), and two set centerpieces did not distract the audience’s attention from the performers. The difficulties of performers doubling parts were mostly overcome with judicious costume changes, though good acting also helped in this area. The frequent retuning of the instrumentalists was ostensibly to help extend time for costume changes, but was sorely needed on this occassion. Again, partly a problem with New College Chapel as a venue with its difficult temperatures, but the band were certainly one of the weak spots of this performance. However, the Continuo playing of Edmund Whitehead and Jacob Swindells could not be faulted. The New College acoustic came into it’s own in the final chorus telling of Calisto’s ascent to the stars. Beautifully balanced, the sound resounded throughout the chapel, providing a magical ending.
Despite some weaker areas, this production is highly entertaining and a musical treat. Superb singing and skilled acting smooth over some of the difficulties of en travesti roles and double casting, and the English text is conveyed with excellent diction and a real sense of the comedy of the text. Despite some weaker elements and slightly less mature, though promising, performances, NCO’s production has set a high bar for opera productions in Oxford in 2014. I am only sorry that there are so few performances.
H. J. Bickley
For more information about New Chamber Opera, please visit their website.