Magazine article The Spectator

Opera: Xerxes; la Calisto; Ulysses' Homecoming

Magazine article The Spectator

Opera: Xerxes; la Calisto; Ulysses' Homecoming

Article excerpt

'Besides feeble writing, there is a mixture of tragic-comedy and buffoonery in it, which Apostolo Zeno and Metastasio had banished from serious opera'. You can always rely on Charles Burney (the celebrated musicologist, who spent most of the 18th century being professionally underwhelmed) to find fault. But writing here about Handel's Xerxes he has a point. The opera's blend of lighter and more serious elements, though typical of Venetian opera, was by no means the norm for the Londoners who were its audience. They didn't like it then, and nearly 300 years later it's something we still seem to struggle with, as English Touring Opera's latest season makes unexpectedly clear.

The all-Baroque programme for ETO's autumn tour brings its revival of Xerxes together with new productions of Monteverdi's Ulysses' Homecoming and Cavalli's La Calisto -- works that offer three very different answers to the same basic dramatic equation: what happens when you add grubby lust to noble love, low comedy to high tragedy?

If this were Shakespeare we wouldn't even bother doing the maths. You can no more take the darkness out of A Midsummer Night's Dream than you can the comedy out of The Tempest ; so why are expectations so different when it comes to early opera? Perhaps because it's much harder to sustain that degree of emotional sophistication in song, to create coherent character in the stop-start dramatic medium of recitative and aria. That these three operatic masters all achieved it is an extraordinary feat, and one that deserves better than to be undone by unsympathetic direction.

Timothy Nelson's Calisto swaps Ovid's woodland groves for a run-down steampunk playground. Giove (George Humphreys) makes his entrance on a slide, while would-be lovers Linfea (the unnecessarily cross-cast Adrian Dwyer) and Satirino (Katie Bray) frolic on the seesaw. It's a striking, stylish framework that's full of promise, but one that unfortunately ends up infantilising its material, transforming Cavalli's erotic, throbbing dances into chaste, childish games, and smoothing a spiky tragicomedy into highly polished farce. It's funny (ish) but at what cost?

Nothing is more unsexy than camp, and from Nick Pritchard's spangly-suited, tutting Mercurio (beautifully sung) to Giove's outrageous cross-dressing, this is Carry On Calisto . Camp is the prophylactic with which we sheath obscenity, but Cavalli's exhilaratingly frank portrait of human sexuality and desire shouldn't require any such euphemising coyness. Comedy here undercuts the sincerity, the weight of every relationship, from the tender affections of Catherine Carby's warmly sung Diana and Tai Oney's Endimione (styled as Galileo by way of Einstein) to Calisto's (Paula Sides) misdirected ardour for her goddess. …

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