My evening as a guest of Hampstead Garden Opera, in the small but perfectly formed theatre which is The Gatehouse in Highgate, was a special experience. Rarely have I been made to feel so welcome by the box office staff, the stewards and even the trustees of the opera company themselves. Upstairs at The Gatehouse is an upper room in a historic tavern which, I am delighted to report, works very well indeed as an intimate, 100-seater theatre. The overall effect is that you feel you are being invited into someone’s home. The theatre has comfy seats (if you are a Friend or merely a guest of HGO,) you have easy access to the pub’s facilities in the intervals and are permitted to take your drinks into the auditorium. Even parking is not a problem – important when North London grinds to a halt, courtesy of the RMT. Add to that the interesting choice of repertoire, a thoroughly engaging production, excellent playing from the band and some fine singing from a promising array of young singers
The chairman and a founder member of HGO, Alastair Macgeorge, is in effect a Venetian impresario, very much in the manner of Giovanni Faustini, who teamed up with Pietro Francesco Caletti (known as Cavalli in honour of his rich patron) to run Teatro San Cassiano, one of the first public opera theatres in the world. I had heard of Cavalli, but I was unaware that he was a chorister at San Marco in Venice and became a pupil of Monteverdi. In fact his life is indissolubly linked with San Marco, serving as he did as chorister, organist and finally as Monteverdi’s successor. An important distinction between Monteverdi and Cavalli as composers of opera is the fact that Monteverdi’s work was written while he was in post as a court composer, whereas Cavalli rode the crest of a Venetian wave of public opera theatres, starting with San Cassiano in 1637.
So in Cavalli’s hands opera ceases to be a medium which celebrates aristocratic weddings or accessions, in which the royal family are honoured by association with mythical gods and godesses. Cavalli’s audience bought tickets to enjoy the spectacle. Of course there are extant contemporary accounts of what it was like to visit Venice on the Grand Tour. A theatre of the 17th and early 18th century was likely to comprise shuttered boxes which were owned by aristocrats and patrons and in which business meetings could be conducted, the upper gallery where maids and manservants would stand and the stalls which would be occupied by an international merchant class, young men learning about life who returned home with glowing accounts of this singer and that entertainment.
The collaboration between Cavalli and Faustini lasted some nine years up to Faustini’s premature death at the age of 36. La Calisto was their last collaborative work. It was premiered in 1651, only a decade after L’incoronazione di Poppea. Unlike the operas of Monteverdi which survive and, in fact, quite unlike the genre of opera seria which came into its own at the beginning of the 18th century, the tone of Faustini’s libretti owed a lot more to Plautus, Terence and even Apuleius than to any highfalutin notion of heroism, loyalty or epic moral dilemma. The mythical figures depicted in La Calisto are intensely human, decidedly comic and at times even grotesque. Cavalli’s music too seems to defy convention. Oliver-John Ruthven, the musical director of Hampstead Garden Opera, describes how Cavalli starts to break away from dialogue based exclusively on recitative, known as monodic form and creates lively airs from Cavalli’s strophic poetry, often allowing the bass line to run in counterpoint with the vocal line instead of merely accompanying it. In short these “proto-arias” all seemed to be in triple metre, rather than the flexible metre of the preceding recitative and greater light and shade of texture was created by the use of duets and trios and key moments.
Faustini’s star singers were generally paid four times as much as the instrumentalists and the top three stars were paid five times as much as the less established members of the cast. Cavalli was the most renowned operatic composer in Italy for several decades, but for a variety of reasons La Calisto was not a success and was forced to close after 11 performances. It is thought that, in an attempt to steal a march on the competition, Faustini chose to introduce the opera a month ahead of the Carnival season. This was clearly not popular with God-fearing Venetians. Secondly, less than three weeks before opening night the star castrato took ill and subsequently died. By 1651 the cult of the star castrato had begun and it just wasn’t possible to find a comparable replacement to step into his shoes. So La Calisto was overlooked until 1970 when Raymond Leppard produced his own re-realisation.
Mr Ruthven went back to the extant manuscript score which is written in the hand of the composer’s wife. The production I saw in Highgate has also had significant cuts made in it so the running time is a little over two hours. We the audience witness Jove in disguise getting his wicked way with Calisto by disguising himself as Diana. Calisto is sworn to a life of chastity by the virgin goddess and is therefore naïve enough not to realise she has experienced sexual congress, and certainly not with a man. Meanwhile, Diana is breaking her own rules by falling passionately in love with Endymion. Diana pretends she remains chaste and Calisto can’t understand why Diana won’t kiss her any more. Pan is suffering from unrequited lust for Diana and Juno immediately recognises that Calisto represents her wandering husband’s latest dalliance. Thanks to Faustini, we are transported to life in Pompeii and Herculaneum, a world full of brothels, boozy parties, sexual intrigue and bawdy jokes (or was that Up Pompeii?)
As is the modern way, director Joe Austin transports us to a post-apocalyptic world where there is a water shortage and plenty of junk lying around to use as props. His theme is one of survival in a society in which the old rules have been overthrown. Reminiscent of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, Diana’s strategy for ending war between men is to establish a troop of women who withold sexual favours. What Mr Austin captures very well is the paradox between the heroic notion that chastity is the purest form of love and the Venetian spirit of Carnevale duing which promiscuity, adultery, even sadism are explored. So if you wanted Roman columns or even Venetian silks and velvet, you would be disappointed. Instead you get pretty young girls in fetching tunics brandishing bows and arrows, Calisto punished in bondage by Juno the dominatrix and the earthy animalism of Pan and his crew. What is particularly special about this production is that every single singer acts his or her socks off. They are all engaged with the opera and everyone is singing from the same metaphorical hymn sheet.
The outstanding vocal performance on the night I attended was given by Susanna Fairbairn as Juno, dressed as a cabaret singer. David Fearn and Chris Webb as Mercury and Jove were exceptional singers too. We had no surtitles or printed libretto, but such was the clarity and diction of these three that every word was not only audible but sung with meaning. The English translation was created by Anne Ridler and all the cast handled the awkwardness of singing something quintessentially Italian in the vernacular with great aplomb. Tom Morss as Pan is a very promising young tenor who was also able to dance in character, adding another dimension to his role. Calisto was depicted by Rachel Wood as a lovely, bright little nymph, whose vocal prowess grew in stature during the evening. Zoe Freedman as Diana offered a beauty and elegance of both form and voice, but is a little underpowered. All the other members of the cast gave of their best and succeeded in drawing the audience into their fantastical world.
Finally I should add that Musica Poetica London under the direction of Mr Ruthven is an early-instrument ensemble of exceptional quality, especially Claudia Norz on violin and Kate Conway on cello. The Hampstead Garden Opera happily produces two staged productions a year. My advice after my first visit is not to miss their next production.