United Kingdom Longborough Festival Opera 2019  – Cavalli, La Calisto: Soloists and the Barefoot Band / Lesley Anne Sammons (conductor). Longborough, Gloucestershire, 29.7.2019. (CP)
Director – Mathilde Lopez
Designer – Jean Chan
Lighting designer – Tim Mitchell
Calisto – Chiara Vinci
Diana – Sophie Goldrick
Guinone – Zita Syme
Linfea – Emma Charles
Destino – Lizzie Holmes
Giove – Felix Kemp
Mercurio – Neil Balfour
Endimione – Brian McAlea
Satirino – Gabriel Seawright
Pane – James Gribble
Sylvano – William Stevens
If you go down in the woods today, you’re sure of a big surprise! Well, not so much a picnic, more epic opera meets the fringe at Longborough Festival Opera’s Young Artist production of Francesco Cavalli’s La Calista. Those taking time to study the excellent programme notes and associated graphics will have noticed the revealing graphic depicting a bear in a shopping trolley escorted by the Greek myth symbol of fertility – a part man part goat figure. Was this discarded shopping trolley a relic in a 1960’s pre-cast concrete car park with its very garish signs to toilets and smoking area? Or was a shopping precinct the intended venue? Clearly identified, the Olympus Cleaning ladies, enjoying a fag or two, were employed to sweep away the detritus of modern-day supermarket shoppers. This trendy take on Venetian opera started a mythical journey. Two hours later, as the performers took their final bow and left the stage, the house lights went up and stewards duly moved to their exits. But only the stewards moved. The enthusiastic applause continued and continued until the somewhat surprised and delighted performers returned to receive yet more prolonged applause.
Young Artist productions at Longborough have an enviable record of success in recent years; not least I’incoronazione di Poppea in 2018 and Alcina in 2016. Never afraid to take risks, this year’s La Calisto maintains the prized reputation.
Early seventeenth-century Venetian opera’s use of the nymph voice is legendary, frequently heard in moments of crisis and sung as a lament. To create the crises, librettists would invent complications to meet audience expectations at the time. Director, Mathilde Lopez adopts an approach which substitutes complications with ‘on trend’ issues – the abhorrence of plastic, the avoidance of waste, the acceptance of lesbianism and an admission of how badly we treat each other in today’s complex society. These substitutions performed against a pre-cast concrete backdrop seemed an unlikely step in the direction of a marquee event; yet that is what a full house felt the young artists delivered.
Conductor, Lesley Anne Sammons led the Barefoot Band with considerable authority in a rescored version requiring electric bass guitar, bass clarinet and accordion. At times the music moves far away from Venetian laments; a few moments of what could well have been a Django Reinhardt contribution led the cast into a choral finale, led by Calisto, confirming how well we work together when we recognise and appreciate each other’s talents. The production travelled a long way from Cavalli and his librettist Faustini’s love of the coarseness of vulgarity. Calisto’s transformation from bear to princess fantastic is complete.
Chiara Vinci, previously with the Young Artists programme last year as Amor in I’incronazione di Poppea steps up to a much more demanding role as Calisto. Having an excellent soprano voice hardly prepares her to be the focus of some brutal behaviour; she survives and becomes the star. Both Neil Balfour (Mercurio) and Felix Kemp (Giove) enjoy themselves enormously as they commit their required conquests; Brian McAlea (Endimione) is one more who suffers some embarrassment as he is bound and ill-treated but not before he has ‘stolen the show’ with the most comical use of a flock of plastic sheep. At one point he provides one of them with a milk feeding bottle; yes, very comical. Rehearsals will no doubt have been enormous fun; the first night of this run was an event of which all these young artists should be very proud.
Above all, designer Jean Chan and lighting designer Tim Mitchell – fresh from his efforts in Don Giovanni earlier in the month – took risks with the vulgar set and the strobe lighting but they were risks worth taking. With strutting peacocks, half-human goats and a green man dressed as an advertisement for the local garden centre, this production could not fail to excite an engaged audience and is a credit to those committed to supporting emerging artists.