Confusing Frolic

By Tanner, Michael | The Spectator, October 4, 2008 | Go to article overview

Confusing Frolic


Tanner, Michael, The Spectator


La Calisto

Royal Opera House

Tosca

Opera North, Leeds

It's not often that you find the Royal Opera going as far back as the 17th century, no doubt for the good reason that operas written then are not suitable for performance in such large houses.

That hasn't daunted the director David Alden, who, together with his set designer Paul Steinberg, has located the action of Cavalli's La Calisto in a grand hotel, with gods behaving badly in 1920s clothing. The era of the grand Art Deco hotel, with its atmosphere of illicit trysts and shady goingson, is so potent that even when staying in a Travelodge I still have hopes that I shall come across some pale replica, but naturally in vain. The set, or sets, of this import from the Bavarian State Opera -- since there's a fair amount of swivelling and, appropriately, metamorphosing, not only of people but of place -- provide plenty of pleasure for the three hours this frolic takes. So does the story, which if you read it in the programme without knowing the opera can induce vertigo, but seems fairly straightforward if elaborate when you see it acted out. As with most things adapted from Ovid, it leaves me wondering what the point of it all is: if the immortals can change into any shape they fancy at will, or for that matter make mortals change, whether into bears or constellations, why don't they just decide what turns them on most and wish him or her into existence, rather than messing around with people who are happy as they are, or anyway happier than being an astronomical phenomenon?

In La Calisto the eponymous heroine is a devout follower of the chaste goddess Diana, so Giove, who fancies her, appears to her as her idol and a seemingly lesbian affair ensues, and one can only commend the mortals and immortals for not being shocked by that aspect of the situation. Meanwhile the real Diana finds herself much taken by the swain Endimione. With two Dianas around it's not surprising that there's a lot of confusion, embarrassing and worse, and though Cavalli's librettist omitted one painful aspect of the action, Calisto giving birth to Giove's child, Alden restores it, though without any music to suit, obviously. The outcome is not happy, but as always, and inevitably, with the immortals, they don't mind much since they will move on to another diversion. The idea behind the piece may be that Desire is the driving force behind all action, but what we actually conclude is that it is the boredom of having an infinite amount of time in which to do nothing in particular which motivates this wretched behaviour on the part of Giove. …

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