La Calisto review at Hackney Empire, London – ‘stylish period music-making’

The cast of La Calisto at Hackney Empire, London. Photo: Jane Hobson
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Venetian opera is the theme of English Touring Opera’s autumn jaunt around eight venues, launching as usual at the Hackney Empire. Monteverdi’s pupil Cavalli is represented by what is surely his best known piece, La Calisto, first staged in La Serenissima in 1651.

It’s a mythological sex-comedy, in which Jupiter seduces the nymph Calisto disguised as Diana, to the fury of his wife Juno. Director Timothy Nelson – who also conducts his own edition of the score, sung in a translation for which he is partially credited – aims on the low side in comedic terms. The result shows a cast working just that bit too hard to gain their laughs.

Some of the sophistication of the piece, and certainly its elements of pathos and lyric beauty, are apt to go missing in a production that veers all too frequently towards the level of Carry On Calisto.

The musical side, for which the multi-talented Nelson is also responsible, is surer-footed, with the Old Street Band in the pit supplying a small instrumental ensemble eminently suited to the task, give or take a couple of recorders. Though Nelson manages the pacing well, the show still feels about 10 minutes too long.

But there’s some fine singing, especially from Paula Sides’ Calisto, a role to which she brings enriched lyricism, from Catherine Carby’s doughty Diana, and from Susanna Fairbairn’s angry Juno.

Even more than the women, the male characters tend to descend into caricature rather than retaining their comedic humanity, though George Humphreys makes an appreciable impact both as Jove and as Jove disguised as Diana, while Nick Pritchard is a sparky Mercury; but Tai Oney’s beautifully sung Endimione suffers more than most from the comic-grotesque approach.

Mechanically oriented designs by Takis are clever but fussy, and on the whole tend to get in the way.

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Fine singing and stylish period music-making offset by a comic-grotesque approach