Pros: Beautiful singing and wonderful storytelling.
Cons: You’ll drink more than you think in the interval.
Upstairs at the Gatehouse is an oddly located theatre, literally the upstairs floor of a Wetherspoons in Highgate. However, great opera, it appears, can flourish in the most unlikely of conditions, and once upstairs we are met with a wonderfully compact studio space.
Now nearing the end of its run, Hamstead Garden Opera’s production of Francesco Cavalli’s rarely performed opera La Calisto is a charming production, and an impressive achievement. At just over two hours, with breaks, the opera is just the right length. The audience are carried through swiftly and without the elaborate and ornamental plateau that does not aid the plot (namely because the work has been heavily cut). The swift easy-to-grasp narrative is somewhat of a surprise, since the plot is, to a modern audience, an abstruse collection of events, drawing heavily on Greek and Roman mythology. Director Joe Austin, who has assisting credits at companies such as The Old Vic and Opera North, states that his main challenges were transposing an entire opera into a new era, and giving the mythological references the immediacy they would have had for Cavalli’s original audience. Clearly, the storytelling must be startlingly clear.
Based on a story from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the opera tells the tale of Calisto, who is tricked into having sex with Jove when he disguises himself as Diana. However, when a bemused Diana later denies that the two shared a bed, Calisto’s pain leads her to confide in Juno, Jove’s wife, who immediately recognises her husband’s deceit.
The set, something between a gothic cabaret and a scrap yard, serviced the opera’s themes well, and avoided the trap of naturalism which fringe opera so often falls into. Objects were used laterally and creatively: beds turning into ‘stocks’ with which to imprison Endymion, singers disappearing under the sheets only to reappear again when they had been forgotten about. The production avoided set changes by having everything contained on one platform, and although the sparkling ‘cabaret’ curtain was slightly confusing at the start, everything sprang into place as soon as we got to the second act, which made for a satisfying revelation.
The cast was studded with promising young talent. Juno (Phillipa Boyle) was an extremely impressive dramatic soprano with an incredible stage presence. Felicity Turner made a strong Diana, James Hall an affective Endymion, Tom Duppernex (Mercury) a witty maverick accomplice to Jove, and Jove (Peter Brooke) was a vibrant bass with a rich and sparkling tone. Calisto (Teresa Pells) was wonderfully engaging, with great vocal agility.
Lead by Oliver-John Ruthven, the ensemble, Musica Poetica London, provided sharp and lively accompaniment. They were a joy to watch, so much so that they kept diverting my attention from the onstage action. The violin section in particular was poised and nuanced, as was Ruthven’s conduction. Musically, the opera is emotionally resonant, with a satisfying balance of light and shade, and it is well constructed. However, the absence of music that audiences can hum along to afterwards perhaps explains the opera’s absence from the baroque canon.
Hampstead Garden Opera have triumphed with this choice, adding to their already dazzling reputation as the gem of London’s fringe opera crown.
Composer: Francesco Cavalli
Company: Hamstead Garden Opera
Director: Joe Austin
Musical Director: Oliver-John Ruthven
Booking Until: 4th May 2014
Booking Link: https://kiosk.iristickets.co.uk/k?uatg&9403tickets