United States Francesco Cavalli, La Calisto: Soloists, Thomas C. Hase (conductor), Cincinnati Opera, Corbett Theater, School for the Creative and Performing Arts, Cincinnati, Ohio. 17.7.2014 (RDA)
Jennifer Johnson Cano,
Thomas Michael Allen,
Stage Director: Ted Huffman.
Scenic Designer: David A. Centers.
Costume Designer: Rebecca Senske.
Lighting Designer: Thomas C. Hase.
Choreographer: Zack Winokur.
On the opening night of Francesco Cavalli’s La Calisto in 1671, Venice already sported the first public opera house, San Cassiano (inaugurated in 1637), where the Venetian nobility and the growing Veneto middle-class sat, if not side-by-side, at least under the same roof. There they would enjoy the latest dramma per musica concoction, all with the papal blessing of Innocent X, an aficionado of the new-fangled form that eventually we came to know and love as opera.
353 years later the Cincinnati Opera’s superb production of Cavalli’s antic creation perfectly balances the story’s randy and rambunctious elements with the delicate portions that dot it. The story is not so simple. Jove, ever on the prowl, falls, royal-head-over-divine-heels, for the momentarily virginal nymph Calisto, assuming the physical form of Diana, her supervisor-goddess. Why the drag? Appearing as his true self to the apple of his godly eye would bring about the young maiden’s death by epiphany.
In the period-perfect Cincinnati Opera production of Cavalli’s romp, the plot thickens when the outraged Diana fires Calisto from her job as assistant huntress. Matters get further entangled when Endymion becomes infatuated with Diana, and she (Jove forbid!) reciprocates. Jove’s wife, Juno suspects that some sort of hanky-panky is afoot, spitefully turning Calisto into an ugly (though cuddly) bear. As a consolation prize, Jove promises that, when Calisto’s life as a woodland critter become unbearable, she will have as her apotheosis a place among the stars in one of the best neighborhoods in the firmament.
Cavalli’s rowdy comedy of ill manners has roots in the then nascent commedia that had begun to make the rounds of Renaissance principalities all over the Italian peninsula. The mythological aspects of the libretto come courtesy of Ovid’s treatment of the legend of Calisto in the sometime poetic, most often naughty Metamorphoses, and her eventual transformation into the main star of the constellation of Ursa Major.
The composer spices up the story with a couple of side plots in which mortals, gods, nymphs, shepherds and satyrs mingle, comingle, quarrel and bed down with each other in infinitely poly-sexual variations and imaginative combinations, all in the verdant and sylvan settings of ancient Greece. At times, the rhythms bring the tone even further down to earth with what must have been popular dance music of Venice in the mid-1600s.
When needed, Cavalli elevates the sexually-hyperactive proceedings to a lofty plateau inhabited by the upper echelons of the mythological population. In a succession of arioso passages, instrumental ritornelli, accompanied recitatives, duets, trios and one extraordinary final choral passage, the composer’s past mastery of Italian polyphony in the so-called stile antico is in evidence. He also shows his command of the new and yet unnamed form that Peri and Caccini developed, which Monteverdi all but perfected.
The several soliloquies of Calisto and her sexually-charged encounters with Jove are exquisitely sung by the very fine soprano Nathalie Paulin. The cast surrounding her is equally superb, with a strong female contingent that includes the vocally deft and comic Jennifer Johnson Cano as an oversexed Diana, the superb Alexandra Deshorties as a sub-zero Juno, and, as a young male satyr, the musically and dramatically agile Alisa Jordheim.
The men, in and out of drag, are splendid. Bass-baritone Daniel Okulitch is an impressive Jove, regal in voice and of imposing demeanor as the King of the gods, then hilarious as an impressively bosomed Diana with a most curious-sounding falsetto.
Baritone Andrew Garland is a red-haired imp, nimble and sonorous as Mercury. Male soprano Michael Maniacci sings like a god, even though he portrays the touching and sweet-natured mortal Endymion. The full-voiced tenor Aaron Blake and the sonorous bass Nathan Stark are a pair of outrageously funny goat-footed satyrs. The hilarious Thomas Michael Allen rounds out the cast as yet another besotted tenor in maiden wear; his x-rated banana routine is one of the evening’s musical and comic highlights.
The stage direction by Ted Huffman is sure-footed and impeccably stylish, the fine and functional set of David A. Centers is imaginatively lit from bright morn to starry-night by Thomas C. Hase, and the costumes of Rebecca Senske are an antic mix of attic finds.
Under the period-authentic and strong leadership of David Bates, the continuo section of the orchestra faithfully plays all the crucially important accompanied recitatives following the complexities of the text, and the full ensemble proudly parades its Baroque stuff in the many ritornelli.
The dance sequences are hilariously choreographed by Zack Winokur. Three male dancers gussied up as yet more virginal followers of Diana are always in anarchic conflict with a motley crew of phallic-proud and tumbling assistant satyrs.
Once the gender confusion, the sexual innuendo jokes and the hasty mating encounters are over, the final moments cap the evening with the one and only choral passage: a serene hymn of awe-struck pantheistic reconciliation in which gods, woodland creatures and humans join their voices movingly, to the utter delight of jaded 21st-century ears.
Rafael de Acha