Submarines in the pit of the Royal Opera House? No, what at first glance looked like periscopes were in fact theorbos in triplicate, the long-necked bass instruments used in the seventeenth century. Enlightenment dawned on me, as if I didn’t know that I was going to see a matinee performance on Saturday September 27 of what must surely be the oldest opera ever to be seen in Covent Garden, La Calisto, by Francesco Cavalli (1602 – 1676, a man of Venice, possibly a pupil of Monteverdi), described by him as a Dramma per musica. It was the ninth show by the composer and his librettist Faustini; it premiered in 1651 in Venice and, unlike its predecessors, it was a flop. It was revived in 1970 at Glyndebourne in a version conducted and orchestrated rather lushly by Raymond Lappard. Since then it has had many stagings.
Compared with Monteverdi, Cavalli’s is a much plainer style, no stabbing harmonies of voices clashing semitonally. But the score leaves much to the imagination of ‘realizors’, much of the accompaniments are anybody’s guess and were, indeed, partly improvised here as directed by Ivor Bolton with the Monteverdi Continuo Ensemble and members of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Much of the prologue and two acts lasting just short of three hours is recitative, merging sometimes into arioso, sometimes merging into arias, with an occasional tutti, merging into dance music. The music is pleasant but not as vital or ‘operatic’ as ? master Monteverdi’s.
Therefore, staging, singing and playing are all important. The noises from the pit were always lively and meaningful, easy on the ear. The singing reached a high standard, led by Sally Matthews, a true soprano sounding nothing but true notes, powerful and stylish. And she looked attractive, her curves actually increased by her pregnancy. For all this, she plays a virgin determined to remain so, until at the end she is transformed, by Jove (and by Jove!) into a bear, and set in a constellation. The whole plot is mightily concerned with kissing, smooching and so on, with two pairs of lovers and a cast including one handsome shepherd and so many god and classical references that you need a Who’s Who and a What’s What in Antiquity to unravel all the complexities of the plot. Alternatively you could just look and listen.
David Alden has devoted his life to putting on this kind of show and he has worked wonders in the production with sets and costumes that positively ravish the senses. Beautiful shapes and wondrous colours assail the eyes. Paul Steinberg uses several stagehands to move his large shaped pieces around whilst Buki Shiff’s costumes are among the finest, most gorgeous and imaginative I have seen on any stage, one damn thing after another, all of them pleasing and beguiling the eye.