Looking at the repertoire of commonly performed opera, you might be forgiven for thinking that the genre disappeared between Monteverdi’s death in 1643 and the emergence of Gluck and Handel in the 18th century. But not everyone sees it that way, and for years, Hampstead Garden Opera’s Alistair MacGeorge has been hankering to put on La Calisto, written in Venice in 1651 by Francesco Cavalli, one of Monteverdi’s most famous successors. That ambition was realised this weekend, in the intimate surroundings of the Gatehouse Theatre. In common with most of the audience, I suspect, I had no idea what to expect.

© Laurent Compagnon
© Laurent Compagnon

La Calisto turns out to be a delicious mash-up of two classical legends: Jupiter’s seduction of Diana’s acolyte Calisto (Jupiter impersonates Diana in order to trick Calisto into accepting his caresses), and Diana’s own romance with the shepherd Endymion (since Diana is the goddess of chastity, this definitely counts as bad behaviour). The plot is helter-skelter, Anne Ridler’s translation of Giovanni Faustini’s libretto is sassy and fun. The whole performance is filled with the spirit of the Venetian carnival, in which all kinds of naughtiness are celebrated prior to the austerity of Lent, and the prim chastity demanded at other times of year is distinctly not in evidence.

If you enjoy renaissance music – and I’m an enduring fan – this is a thorough treat. Oliver-John Ruthven keeps everything light, airy and constantly on its feet; dance rhythms are nicely accented, melodic passages are elegantly phrased, the blended sound of early instruments is well balanced, as is the relative level of instruments and voices. The line-up is packed with continuo instruments: two harpsichords, theorbo, harp and viola da gamba accompany two violins and two recorders (one of which doubles with the harp). The result is a mixture that’s evocative of the period and which keeps the romantic comedy action moving.

Susanna Fairbairn as Juno, Harriet Burns as Mercury's assistant © Laurent Compagnon
Susanna Fairbairn as Juno, Harriet Burns as Mercury's assistant
© Laurent Compagnon

The young cast do a marvellous job of entertaining us. Unlike a Handelian opera in which there are two or three big stars and everything stops while they show off their vocal prowess, La Calisto has a dozen roles with important contributions to make, and in this production, singing, acting (and sometimes dance) are very much part of the overall experience. Several of the smaller parts steal the show, such as David Fearn as the suave fixer Mercury and Emily Armour as Diana’s acolyte Linfea, who gets a splendid aria in which, loyal as Linfea is to the chaste goddess, she suggests that the whole virginity thing is overrated. The point at which Jupiter (Chris Webb) impersonates Diana is hilarious as he attempts a falsetto, fails horribly, and summons Mercury’s Assistant (Harriet Burns) to come and do his voice-overs, duly miming while she sings his lines in a properly Diana-like soprano voice. The same gag works well a second time when Juno arrives on the warpath to put a spanner in the works: this time, Jupiter is standing back-to-back with the Assistant in a hopeless attempt to hide her from his furious wife. Webb does the “supercilious and overpowering but henpecked” bit as Jupiter, Susanna Fairbairn is imperious as Juno, Zoë Freedman is suitably two faced as Diana.

Vocal performances are never less than thoroughly competent. Rachel Wood is outstanding in the title role: she gets a lot of singing to do in a lot of moods, from rapturous to miserable to just plain confused, and her voice is attractive and clear throughout. The other voice that caught my ear was James Hall (borrowed from the other of the two casts) as Endymion, whose counter-tenor has a lovely pure timbre.

© Laurent Compagnon
© Laurent Compagnon

The action of La Calisto is supposed to have happened in the aftermath of a war between gods and humans in which Jupiter has torched the planet. Director Joe Austin goes for a production aesthetic with lots of references to current post-apocalyptic tales: we’re somewhere between post-industrial Detroit, Mad Max and The Hunger Games (the bow and arrow thing is a good fit for Diana the huntress). The setting worked fine for me, but what impressed most was the detailed direction of the cast – there were good acting performances from everyone.

I can’t imagine being more entertained by an evening’s chamber opera. The music was airy and appealing, singing ranged from good to excellent, acting uniformly excellent, the story had pace and a sense of good humour prevailed over the whole thing. Who’s to ask for more?