When was the last time you had a chance to see La Calisto, an opera from the early Baroque by Francesco Cavalli/aka Francesco Caletti-Bruni (1602-1676)?
Leave it to Stephen Stubbs and colleagues to make us realize how much we’ve been missing.
The Seattle-based conductor, lutenist, and early music expert was asked by Juilliard to lead their recent production of La Calisto, which just concluded a brief run of three performances in the school’s intimate Rosemary and Meredith Willson Theater (seating for a maximum of 100).
The result was far more than musical archeology. It also went beyond presenting a platform for talented young Juilliard artists. This was a fully engaging theatrical and musical experience, one that proved — vividly and gracefully — the undiminished appeal of this material.
La Calisto dates from a fascinating period in early opera, when the newish art form was migrating from private courts into the public theaters of Venice in the mid-17th century. The surprise at Juilliard was how fresh and resonant the work can be when experienced in such a smart, tasteful production. The version of La Calisto presented had been adapted and arranged by Stubbs and director and choreographer Zack Winokur, featuring members of Juilliard Opera and Dance.
Cavalli’s opera of 1651, to a libretto by Giovanni Faustini, repurposes one of the mythic stories of love gone astray from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, fusing it with the (normally unrelated) legend of the handsome shepherd Endymion (Endimione).
What’s most remarkable about the conflation of sources here is the mingling of comic, even ribald, elements with pathos — and this is exactly what Winokur negotiated so effectively and with such winning imagination.
Well before Mozart and da Ponte would hit upon a similarly ambiguous admixture of seria and buffa tonalities in Don Giovanni, Cavalli and Faustini dramatize scenes of lofty emotion and longing side-by-side with the grotesque and sometimes crudely humorous spectacle of gods and demigods crazed by uncontrollable lust.
The latter isn’t limited to the randy half-goat Pan and his merry band of satyrs but extends to Jove himself. We encounter the chief of the gods overcome by desire at first sight of the virgin archer Calisto [one “el” in the Italian, rather than the English “Callisto”].
A follower of the moon goddess and huntress Diana and hence pledged to chastity, Calisto rejects his advances — the libretto includes a witty aside about the pesky side-effects of the free will that Jove has granted his creations — so the god resorts to a transgender disguise as Diana to con his way. There’s a subtler layer of humor as well, as the hypocrisy of the gods is put on full display.
The opera is framed by a narrative of cosmic happenings, beginning — as if the day after Götterdämmerung — with a visit by Jove, accompanied by Mercury, to check up on an earth devastated by Apollo’s son Phaeton (who, having lost control of the reins of papa’s sun-chariot, had accidentally set the planet on fire).
At the end of the opera, Calisto undergoes an apotheosis into one of the constellations in the heavens. (In Ted Hughes’ rendering of Ovid’s Latin, Calisto — from the Greek for “most beautiful” — is “the Arcadian beauty.”)
But within that framework the opera explores the maddening effects of Eros on humans, demigods, and immortals alike. Jove’s frankly sexual passion for the innocent titular heroine sets in motion the main narrative.
Along with a subplot about Diana’s own weakness for the male counterpart of Calisto — the beautiful shepherd Endimione — it involves a comedy of mistaken identities, confused longing, sexual aggression and rejection — and of course the inevitable blowback from jilted lovers who channel their passion into a lust for vengeance.
At the opera’s midpoint, for example, Jove’s official spouse Juno descends from Olympus to discover hubby’s latest infidelity. Enraged — though Calisto has been the unwitting object of Jove’s desires — Juno cruelly transforms her rival into a bear; physically, though, Calisto retains her human awareness. (“Her lament/Was the roar of a bear – but her grief was human,” in Ted Hughes’s version of Ovid.) Calisto’s second transformation into a heavenly body is Jove’s way of repairing the damage he has caused.
“It seems to me that [librettist Faustini] set out to fashion a show that a modern promoter might describe as ‘a sexy romp’ — with all the tools that he and Cavalli had developed in their previous works. Sexuality and sensuality pervade every corner of the libretto,” notes Stephen Stubbs.
This was Stubbs’s first collaboration with Juilliard students, working a magic similar to what he has achieved in his stagings with University of Washington students (as in Handel’s Semele and Mozart’s The Magic Flute).
Indeed, Winokur’s staging and pacing underscored the playful erotics — with an arch nod to contemporary sexual politics, but avoiding predictable camp. This was the polar opposite of “stand and sing” opera, of absurdly monumental gestures.
Stage movement was brisk and varied, at times wittily stylized into dance — and in marvelous sync with the lively tempi Stubbs elicited.
The conductor led mostly from the harpsichord, working with a small but colorful and dynamic ensemble comprising a pair of violins and a continuo mixture (lutes, bowed basses, etc.), plus a touch of percussion. The players were members of Juilliard415, the school’s period-instrument ensemble.
La Calisto unfolds place amid a pastoral scene that has just begun to be restored. The setting was elegantly visualized by the design team of Adam Charlap Hyman and Andre Herrero, with landscape painting by Pilar Almon and suggestive lighting by Marcus Doshi.
The energetic cast had been well prepared in the musical rhetoric of Cavalli’s idiom, which quickly (almost unnoticeably) morphs from recitative to arioso to aria or duet — the score features a wealth of duets — with terrific economy. Modest gestures were telling and made their mark.
Particularly outstanding were the Polish countertenor Jakub Józef Orliński as Endimione in the subplot of Diana’s own naughty dalliance. He did justice to what is probably the score’s single most gorgeous piece of music: his praise of Diana in “Lucidissima face.” (Endimione and Diana are the opera’s only couple to enjoy a case of requited love.)
Samantha Hankey amazed with a commanding stage presence and with her ability to persuasively differentiate Diana as lover from the severe Diana who is horrified by Calisto’s confession of love. As Calisto, Angela Vallone sang with unaffected beauty, suggesting the awakening of sensual awareness when her innocent character is duped by Jove in disguise.
Julia Wolcott used her large voice to imposing, regal effect as Juno, hinting at a mesmerizing fusion of an angry Donna Anna with the Queen of the Night. Her appearance — accompanied by a retinue of Furies — inspired the most memorable of Austin Scarlett’s delightful costumes, her towering dress an object of awe in itself.
Excellent contributions were made as well by Xiaomeng Zhang as the sex-starved Giove, while spot-on comic timing was provided by Michael St. Peter as his sidekick Mercurio, who eggs him on to pursue his desires. Don Giovanni once again came to mind, with Giove as a precursor to the amoral seducer, the procuring messenger god his Leporello.
Shades of A Midsummer Night’s Dream likewise were evoked, though La Calisto concludes not with a smoothing out of the erotic misalliances, but rather with a sublime ensemble ode to the transformed heroine.
–(c)2016 Thomas May. All rights reserved.