There must be something in the air. Desert years pass with not a hint of one of Francesco Cavalli’s most often performed operas, brought to the popular imagination by Glyndebourne’s famous 1970s production, and then – quite suddenly – two Calistos come along at once. Just weeks after the English Touring Opera’s much acclaimed staging of this tragi-comic tale of lust, disguise and outright confusion, La Nuova Musica, directed by David Bates, brought their semi-staged version to London’s Wigmore Hall.

Jurgita Adamonytė © Oksana
Jurgita Adamonytė
© Oksana

The cast, despite several last minute changes due to illness, was one of the most spectacular at the Wigmore this year. Jurgita Adamonytė, who replaced Pamela Helen Stephen as the goddess Diana, and James Newby, the young Kathleen Ferrier winner who stepped in to Mercurio’s winged shoes, are to be commended; but George Humphrey’s last-minute addition to the cast as Giove, fresh from his ETO stint in the same role, was immaculate in his professionalism, and all three performances were as polished as their better-prepared colleagues.

One can’t help but wonder whether Cavalli is playing the audience throughout this complex and bewildering opera. Giove (Humphreys), seeing a beautiful and chaste woman (enter Lucy Crowe’s Calisto), immediately desires her as his own. As is Giove’s nature in much Ovidian myth, despite fierce protestations from his poor victim, he ends up achieving his sordid goal through disguise, deception and trickery. Pretending to be his own daughter, Diana, he woos the virgin Calisto who, having now been taken in by lust, can’t understand why the ‘real’ Diana (Jurgita Adamonytė), who arrives later, (surround by a string of lovers trying to seduce her, just to complicate things even further), spurns her. Add into the mix Giove’s jealous wife, Giunone (Rachel Kelly), and an obsessive, impertinent satyr (Jake Arditti) intent on ravishing Diana’s (confusingly, in this production, transvestite) nymph Linfea (Sam Furness), and there’s a danger of the whole tale becoming a farce.

And this is the problem that La Calisto as a work brings; how to balance the, at times, sublime vocal lines with the cross-dressing, suggestive imagery, sexual innuendo, and almost ridiculous love triangles? Are we meant to mock Calisto’s naivety and Diana’s dismal attempts at chastity, or sympathise with a ravaged, love-lost woman who has been taken advantage of by a powerful, obsessed man, and her equally misguided idol? Should we allow ourselves to be amused, as Cavalli surely intended, by gender switching and the thrills of illicit love, and the comedy of Calisto forced to become a bear, complete in this production with fuzzy bear head – or are we meant to mourn alongside the rivers and fountains the loss and devastation brought by the gods? Is this witty or slapstick; does it have a moral, or should the work be as irreverent as some of the deliberately grotesque dance sequences?

It is a question that is not fully answered in this production, which veers between the sublime and the ridiculous in ways that are not always altogether comfortable. La Nuova Musica, conducted by David Bates from the harpsichord and organ, is deservedly lauded as one of the most specialist groups in the country, so the decision to focus on performance rather than staging (a decision also partly taken by nature of the limitation of the Wigmore platform) was wise. The attention to detail across the players was breath-taking; equally riveting in the quieter, more beautiful arias (the ground bass accompaniment to Endimione’s plaintive second act aria “Lucidissima face” was a particular delight) as in their dance passages and swelling ritornellos, and the addition of the harp to signify the gushing river was beautifully done.

But where the consort was unanimous in beauty, the staging was sadly not. La Calisto, however one reads it, must surely be comedic in places; yet the raucous nature of Arditti’s and Linfea’s (Sam Furness’) horny exchanges – culminating in a piggy-back hollering gallop down the aisle – at times bordered on silliness, which felt at jarring odds with the rest of the production. By contrast, Humphrey’s falsetto beauty allowed Giove’s cross-dressing to refrain from the ridiculous; an example in moderation.

It is invariably more difficult for the more traditionally ‘serious’ singers to shine when surrounded by such buffoonery – but this was an exceptional cast. Andrew Tortise’s Pan was mournful but not overdone; Kelly’s Giunone the perfect balance of poise and rage; and Endimione (Tim Mead) as a lovesick wallowing youth was devastatingly sublime. Adamonytė's Diana was just as capable of sweetness as fierce reproval; her final duet with Mead was gripping in its delicacy. If only all the staging had been as sensitive.