Monday, July 11, 2011

L'alto motore novo splendore a ciel prepara

Peter Paul Rubens, Jupiter and Callisto, 1613
Francesco Cavalli's 1651 opera Calisto has its origins in the mid-seventeenth century heyday of Venetian opera, when composers and librettists scrambled to keep up with the demands of a voracious public (recording here; synopsis here.) Its three-act structure was just becoming standardized; its libretto was the last of his long-term artistic partnership with Giovanni Faustini. Calisto intertwines mythological narratives in what Wendy Beth Heller has called the "essentially inaccessible... realms" of Arcadia and the cosmos, reimagining the Ovidian tale of Calisto as a parable of female desire, and staging the paradox of Diana in love. In Venice, it was not a success. In Brooklyn, however, with the Vertical Player Repertory performing in the shabby-romantic courtyard of Proteus Gowanus, it held its audience enthralled. Ably sung by a youthful and energetic cast, the opera also benefited from creative use of its space. A small ensemble of period instruments, led by Jennifer Peterson at the harpsichord, provided unexpectedly full sound. The comic tone chosen for the unfolding of the plot devices was in better keeping with the seventeenth-century spirit than my own, but the VPR's interpretation of the opera's fantastical elements was an admirable example of doing much with little. Arcadia was evoked by a profusion of potted plants; the gods descended from the heavens on an ancient fire escape; dancers embodied the stags of Diana and Juno's peacocks. On the whole, it all worked remarkably well.

Carracci, Diana and Endymion, from "The Loves of the Gods"
In the retinues of deities and demigods, Toby Newman made a convincingly eager Linfea, breathless with desire, while Nathan Baer was a sonorous Silvano, whose sly portrayal drew chuckles from the audience.  The Juno of Judith Barnes may not have achieved tragic grandeur, but she avoided caricature, and her indictment of wayward husbands carried bite as well as pathos. Joseph Hill sang Destiny in the prologue, but came into his own, vocally and dramatically, as the Satyr, self-satisfied, lusty, and gleefully vulgar. Both in amorous confidence and disappointment he sang vividly. The role of Pan did not afford Nicholas Tamagna the opportunity to shine as he did earlier this summer in Mitridate, but he sang with rich, expressive tone and gave a charismatic dramatic portrayal. Aram Tchobanian made an aptly oily Mercury, though I could have wished for more vocal and dramatic subtlety. Mezzo-soprano Hayden DeWitt made a thoroughly winsome Endymion, clad as a student. I thought she gained in vocal security over the course of the evening, and the vicissitudes of her boyish adoration for Diana were charmingly acted. VPR's production made the choice to have the role of the disguised god sung by Diana-acting-Jove rather than Jove-singing-as-Diana, which I appreciated from a dramatic standpoint, but it left me wishing that bass Mathew Curran had more to do. Noble of voice and presence, he sang with beautiful warmth and fine attention to text. In the Cavalli/Faustini account of Jove's relationship with Calisto, they confusingly develop a mutual affection despite the fact that Calisto's initial ecstatic, amorous response is (she thinks) to the advances of Diana. So Curran's sympathetic presence was not as jarring as it might have been.

Marcy Richardson, then, sang the roles of Diana and Jove-masquerading-as-Diana with distinctive characterizations and equal panache. Her opening phrases, as Eternity, seemed a bit tenative, but soon after she settled into an extraordinarily vivid, vocally impressive performance. In her dual role, Richardson was on stage for a great deal of the opera, with significant vocal and dramatic demands made upon her. She rose to the occasion with style. Diana's rage and tenderness were alike convincing, and the king of the gods was, er, jovially caddish. In the title role, Holly Gash wielded a rich lyric soprano with nicely expressive phrasing. In the narrative of her sensual awakening and its punishment, I kept expecting--hoping--that Calisto would show some rage, some profound passion in the aftermath of desire. But in this baroque concoction, she is content to receive the consolations of immortality.

A helpful sign: opera in "1st alley on left"

Et in Arcadia graffiti

Stage, musicians, audience


  1. @DTO It was pretty great! There are so many interesting ideas to play around with, and as the VPR proved, Arcadia and the cosmos don't have to be budget-breakers. More Calisto productions would also mean great countertenor roles that aren't Orfeo, which could then be sung by more mezzos. Everybody wins (especially us!) :)

  2. And I read somewhere that the orchestra counts only four or five? I love this making do. It goes perfectly with the Baroque.

    Isn't The Emblems of Eloquence great, though? I must buy it at one point, was only ever able to get hold of the hard cover edition at the library. Why don't university presses print more in trade paperback? I hope the onslaught of e-publishing makes the academic publishers see the light re. soft covers.

    Happy Manhattanhenge tomorrow, by the way.

  3. The orchestra of five: 2 violins, viola da gamba, theorbo, hpshcd. The world premiere in 1651 included exactly the same with the composer leading from the hpschd and one additional hpschd, so an orchestra of six.

    We were tuned to 1/5-comma meantone tuning, a historical temperament appropriate to the period, with pure thirds for sweetness in certain keys, at baroque pitch A=415.

    I'm glad you enjoyed the show!


  4. Hi, Maestra! Any chance you'll head north for a performance or two? (read: Toronto) And what made you choose La Calisto?

    Opera Mission site looks great too. I never saw Aria, must rent it out. All men directors, alas, but what else is new.

  5. @DTO The book was Zerbinetta's recommendation and I'm loving it. Well-made trade paperbacks would be dreamy. I had the glued-in pages of an academic book fall out on me recently, though; it was terrible!

    @operamission Thanks so much for the info, Jennifer! (I second the curiosity about how Calisto-project came about!)


Start a conversation!


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...