BWW Review: LA CALISTO, Hackney Empire, 14 October 2016

Venice is a magical place - how it makes money disappear so quickly is David Blaine-esque! But joking aside, the unique city on the lagoon is both a testimony to the power of religion (Venice has churches the way London has estate agents) and to the power of science, the vast conceit of building on and in water kept afloat by engineering ancient and modern. Those themes, and plenty more, are ever present in La Calisto, the opera by Francesco Cavalli and Giovanni Faustini first performed in Venice in 1651 and revived in English Touring Opera's Autumn Season.

Its convoluted plot (and I guess that we're all grateful for the scene introductions on screens, but I can't be alone in wanting full surtitles, despite the English libretto) sees gods coming down to Earth, falling for nymphs and humans, taking on disguises (often gender-crossing), exotic forms and generally swirling the natural and supernatural worlds into an admixture ripe for comic and tragic possibilities.

Calisto herself is a beautiful nymph - ETO regular Paula Sides, red of hair and burning with passion, imbues her arias with a touch of heaven, dare I say - and she catches the eye of Giove. He, being Jove, can shape-shift into whatever works to get his girl, this time eschewing his old swan trick in favour of assuming the shape of Diana, Calisto's god. Here we get plenty of the comedy that characterises Acts One and Two, with George Humphreys (looking like a giant Ian Ogilvy in drag) channeling his inner panto dame, but crucially, succeeding in breaking Calisto's vow of chastity as a warrior in the service of Diana. That debt is settled at the end.

Meanwhile, the real Diana is being wooed by stargazer, Endimione (a honey-voiced Tai Oney), who may have Einstein's hair, but is clearly an avatar for Galileo whose work prompted the science vs religion standoff which would be very strongly in the thoughts of 17th-century Venetians. Catherine Carby's Diana is all voluptuous curves and smouldering sensuality, but - poor Endimione - they only get it together for one chaste kiss, before each returns to their rightful domains. Pane and his demons make an appearance too, but they get er... panned and sent packing and piping by Diana, whose bow is as taut as her corset.

After the comedy of the opening acts, it's a surprise to see Act Three take such a serious turn, but, as Calisto ascends to immortality, Giove having granted her an eternal home in the heavens, the audience back in Venice (and, perhaps, today's audience with climate change, evolution and medical science under threat from religious voices around the world) is left with a vision of a world of cogs and clocks (designer Takis has created a set that is both mechanical, but gorgeous on the eye), a mortal world which foretells the advance of science and engineering that was to lead to man's own ascendance to the heavens, specifically, Diana's very own Moon in 1969.

This opera may be full of lovely singing and eerie melodies played on replicas of the instruments used in period Venice, but it's also very 21st century in its take on faith vs facts, on spirituality vs carnality, on duty vs pleasure. It doesn't provide glib answers - because there aren't any - but it does make you think as you walk off into the night untangling the subplots as you go.

La Calisto continues on tour until 23 November.

Photo Jane Hobson

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From This Author Gary Naylor