An opera grows in Brooklyn – A bucolic La Calisto at Proteus Gowanus

United StatesUnited States Francesco Cavalli, La Calisto: Soloists; Rachel Evans, Joan Plana Nadal (Baroque violins); Richard Kold, Theorbo, Motomi Igarashi (Viola da gamba and lirone); Judith Barnes (director); Jennifer Peterson (conductor and harpsichord); The VPR Chorus; Vertical Player Repertory. Proteus Gowanus, Brooklyn, New York. 10.8.2011 (GG)

Holly Gash – Calisto
Marcy Richardson – Diana and L’Eternita
Matthew Curran – Giove
Hayden DeWitt – Endimione
Aram Tchobanian – Mercurio
Nicholas Tamagna – Pane and La Natura
Joseph Hill – Satirino and Il Destino
Nathan Baer – Silvano
Toby Newman – Linfea
Judith Barnes – Giunone
Allegra Durante, Chitra Raghavan – Dancers

Production Team:
Producer – Vertical Player Repertory
Director – Judith Barnes
Lighting – Greg Goff
Costumes – Heather Green
Choreography – Scott Crawford

Proteus Gowanus is a gallery and workspace on the banks of Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal – a waterway so polluted that gonorrhea has been found in it, and now an Environmental Protection Agency Super Fund cleanup site. But in the dense, urban landscape of Brooklyn, the canal is a surprisingly bucolic place, especially in the evening, and the inner courtyard behind Proteus Gowanus turns out to be an ideal location for al fresco opera.

For Vertical Player Repertory, a small but notable Brooklyn company, it was the site for an imaginative, successful and completely enjoyable production of La Calisto, Francesco Cavalli’s lyrical sex farce. VPR’s mission is to perform opera out-of-doors in site-specific productions, such as Il Tabarro staged on an oil tanker moored at the Red Hook docks. The ease with which VPR productions go beyond the novelty and charm of their locations and end up as skillful, professional shows that rival those of any opera company is a testament to how simplicity of means, modest size and musical skill are frequently the best ingredients for opera.

A VPR production has limited resources, and that’s an advantage. The values of contemporary opera too often center on sets and big-name directors, when the point of the form is musical drama. For this intimate Calisto, a bed, some potted plants, a slightly noisy fountain and simple costumes that effectively supported the characters’ qualities kept the focus on the music and the acting, and each were almost uniformly excellent. The outdoor space, mostly enclosed, reflected sound surprisingly well, so much so that the instrumental accompaniment had a full, clear presence, and the singers carried without undue effort. There were distractions, including some noisy air conditioners, but it was easy to stay focused on the music.

A fun sense of freedom defined the performance. Cavalli conveys the story, the usual mythological mix-up of lusty gods and satyrs colliding with virgins, in music that is lighthearted, earthy and humane. All of the characters have the space to express themselves, and thanks to the directorial acumen of Judith Barnes, had the physical freedom to move, jump, laugh, be real. The chorus, sincere and charmingly ragged, doubled as a dance troupe of sorts – or more of a mime troupe, representing acolytes and animals without any costume changes. The principals were almost universally fine. Barnes – also singing the role of Giunone – was predominantly flat, which may have been a function of some difficulty in hearing the accompaniment. Even with that slight flaw, the singing was uniformly expressive. Even the smallest roles had the freedom to play with the tempo of long, legato passages, and everyone was characterful: Matthew Curran as a self-possessed Giove, Holly Gash charismatic as Calisto, Joseph Hill’s physically wild and beautifully sung Satirino, and Aram Tchobanian as a buffoonish Mercurio. Hayden DeWitt was completely believable and sympathetic in the trouser role of Endimione, and special praise for Marcy Richardson, who was great both as Diana and as Giove in the guise of Diana, a subtle and difficult change that she made seem easy.

The physical and musical freedom I’ve mentioned were fundamental parts of the success of this production. The outdoor setting seems to have had a profound and pervasive effect, giving a sense of a limitless stage, with the characters appearing and disappearing from the alley, through doorways and windows, bounding on and off the bed, flowing from one side of the courtyard to the other. One of the most obvious choices was also one of the most thrilling: Giove, Mercurio and later Giunone appeared literally from the heavens, climbing down the fire escape from the roof of the multi-storied building on one side of the enclosure. Their measured descents and ascents, paced by the singing, expressed so much about the characters’ status in the story, and how they felt about themselves, and did more to create the magic of musical theater than any pit, apron or curtain could ever accomplish.

George Grella