A powerful male figure with a penchant for destructive behaviour sees a woman he likes the look of, makes leering comments to his male sidekick and sets in motion a plan to have his way with her, while at times forgetting her name. No, not the Republican candidate for the American Presidency, but Giove (Jupiter) in Cavalli’s La Calisto. Virtually every text I picked up when studying Classics had some reference to the insatiable libido of the King of the Gods and it provided a rich source of material for poets and playwrights through the Medieval period – see, for instance, the rather brilliant 12th-century play Geta by Vitalis of Blois – to the Baroque era and beyond. Cavalli’s 1651 opera focuses on Giove’s seduction of the nymph Calisto by disguising himself as her mistress Diana, the virgin hunting goddess, and the subsequent revenge that his jealous wife, Giuone, wreaks on her by turning her into a bear and setting the Furies on her, before Giove rescues her and has her turned into a constellation. Well, lucky her!

Paula Sides (Calisto) and Catherine Carby (Diana) © Jane Hobson
Paula Sides (Calisto) and Catherine Carby (Diana)
© Jane Hobson

Cavalli, though, expands the action, providing a second plotline that focuses on chaste Diana’s own love for the astrologer, Endimione, and the jealousy of the hircine Pane, who subsequently kidnaps and tortures his rival. Diana comes to the rescue, the toxophilite goddess dispatching the goat-man and his farmyard goons with a twang of her bow, and shares a single kiss with Endimione before both agree to maintain a loving distance. If one’s in the mood, there’s bags of contemporary subtext that can be explored, but it can be enjoyed as a not-so-simple domestic drama quite easily.

George Humphreys (Giove) © Jane Hobson
George Humphreys (Giove)
© Jane Hobson

Timothy Nelson and takis deserve credit for creating a superb production with a stunning set and eye-catching costumes. The set was a tangled web of iron with old steering wheels and cogs dotted periodically. Rusty seesaws and platforms were placed here and there and the main point of ingress was a large slide; the overall impression was a combination of post-apocalyptic recreation ground and scrapyard. Lighting was used well; a vibrant shimmering orange representing Giove’s scorching of Earth was a particularly nice touch. takis’ costumes have moments of genius; his Pane, a patchwork of crimson and gold, with horsehair draped down his enlarged ankles was excellent, as was Diana in hunting garb (brilliantly parodied when Giove took on her likeness). It was well-choreographed, it seemed well-rehearsed and was largely done with a sense of fun that often managed to make this opera, which can run the serious risk of tedium, fizz, most noticeably in the first act. My biggest gripe is that diction was not universally good enough to make the choice to forgo surtitles valid.

Paula Sides, singing the title role, gave an impassioned performance; totally convincing in her anger at Giove, her attraction to pseudo-Diana and her hurt at the real Diana’s rejection of her. Vocally she seemed a little weak in the lower register one or two occasions and she can be a little ferrous at the top, but it’s a bright voice and she managed to sustain an energy throughout the evening, though her diction blurred more often than was ideal. George Humphreys’ was an unfailing delight with a warm smooth baritone that had an easy seductive quality to it; his stage manner was endearing and with a handsome frame encased in a long black and gold outfit straight out of ITV’s Victoria, he looked the part. He made a decent stab at falsetto when in disguise, but didn’t wholly convince in that respect.

Peter Brathwaite (Silvano) and Katie Bray (Satirino) © Jane Hobson
Peter Brathwaite (Silvano) and Katie Bray (Satirino)
© Jane Hobson

Catherine Carby’s poised mezzo dominated as the hunting goddess; with a rich velvety texture and a natural power, she gave a memorable vocal display. Her Endimione was sung by Tai Oney, whose countertenor was a little too thin and seemed slightly inflexible. Looking like a quasi-Einstein figure; wild mop of white hair permanently aquiver, he gave a vulnerable performance as the myopic astrologer, defenseless without his glasses. As Mercurio, tenor Nick Pritchard gave a comic tour de force; though his tenor was underpowered, the quality of his acting was very high. Mincing around the stage like a giant Quality Street chocolate in a shiny purple suit, his sense of timing and delivery was spot on, his expressions priceless. Susanna Fairbairn injected her soprano with a suitable level of wrathful menace as Giunone, while John-Colyn Gyeantey showed an elegant tenor that was slightly at odds with the brutish nature of Pane.

Timothy Nelson also conducted the ETO orchestra in a colourful performance that saw the band at its best in moments of seduction where it positively throbbed with sexual tension. A commendable performance from all parties.