Pietro Francesco Caletti-Bruni (1602-1676), better known as Francesco Cavalli, has long been ignored in the revival that baroque works have seen in opera houses around the world. That is surprising, given how many of his 40-plus operas survive and how they serve very naturally as a bridge between the three extant and popular Monteverdi’s and the sheer infinite number of equally popular Handel operas.
Of course, not all Cavalli operas are of equal merit. The North American premiere of La Didone, for example, showed that to thoroughly enjoy some four hours of secco recitativo you really need to love early baroque – a touch of masochism being a bonus. Ignoti Dei Opera’s shoe-string production was a musicologist and early-music geek’s delight, but it was (though shortened already) interminable and – in all truth – boring.
La Calisto, Cavalli’s 13th (?) opera from 1652 is, to these ears, a vast improvement over the eleven years younger Didone… and not only because the Munich Staatsoper – who introduced Calisto into its repertoire two seasons ago – can luxuriate such a performance with a staging and singers like few other opera houses in the world.
The story in a nutshell is that Giove (Jupiter/Zeus) falls in love with the chaste nymph Calisto (Callisto = “the most beautiful”) who is a follower of the cult of goddess of hunting and the moon Diana (Artemis/Selene). Since she resists Giove’s advancements, he assumes the form of Diana (his daughter) and seduces her thus. Diana herself is desperately in love with Endimione (Endymion, arguably a son of Zeus/Jupiter, too). But since Diana is supposed to be chaste (a staunch trait of Artemis – but her Roman version Diana seems to have taken a slightly more liberal approach), that leads to some complications. Giunone (Juno/Hera) discovers the illicit cause for Calisto’s pregnancy and, vengeful and hurt, turns her into a bear – thus avoiding any further amorous advances on the part of Giove. Pitying beautiful Calisto’s beastly state, Giove promises her eternal life as one of the stars. (In the common telling of the story he saves the bear-shaped Calisto from death at the hand of her hunter-son Arcas (whom Zeus also turns into a bear) by throwing them into the firmament – thus creating the constellations Ursa Major and Ursa Minor.)
The 20-head strong original instrument orchestra – a novelty for the Staatsoper when it was introduced for this opera in 2005 – is led by Ivor Bolton and plays (at Venice baroque pitch of A=465hz) from a score that the musicologist Álvarro Torrente has edited specifically for these performances. As there can be no “Urtext” in baroque music (the idea of the composer’s ‘will on paper’ being sacrosanct is a fairly modern one – and back then composers required impromptu improvisation and guesstimating their way through the score as regards dynamics, tempos, harmony, or embellishments), continuo player Chris Moulds added little parts to suit dramatic needs of the staging. (Not that you’d ever notice – without, or even with, score in hand.)
And what a staging it is: One of the last new productions under the auspices of the former General Manager Sir Peter Jonas, it brings together Munich’s “Dream Team” of baroque opera, director David Alden and said Ivor Bolton. The entire team, including the principal singers, have continuously worked on, and fine tuned this Calisto . And the continuous work shows. La Calisto is a unity of music, singing, and staging that the composer and librettist (Giovanni Faustini) could never have imagined. It is a proto-Gesamtkunstwerk and the performance on Wednesday, November 7th, was a wonder to behold, even with some minor imperfections that would have been noticeable to few – if any – viewers, but were bemoaned by the cast afterwards.
The set (Paul Steinberg) and the costumes (Buki Shiff) are a colorful and quirky romp that seduce on the account of their visual appeal and they remove the story from any particular time or period (as should be, in a story about Gods, Demigods, and Nymphs) by means of abstraction. Words won’t quite do justice to the amorphous walls with patterns of bright swirls, or the long bar where the subsidiary characters (Pane, Silvano, Satirino et al.) get together for a drink, accompanied by assorted non-speaking creatures chosen from the signs of the zodiac and a most amusingly realistic, dramatically oversized drink-serving chameleon.
The figure of Linfea, a desperately horny nymph who wants a man (and badly so! - w“D’haver un consorte / io son risoluta / voglio esser goduta.” – “I’m absolutely resolved to have a partner; I wish to be enjoyed now”), is transposed for tenor which leaves Guy de Mey to sing the part in drag. Making Linfea a manly and ungainly transvestite-like character is apt, logical, and hilarious since the desperate thing can’t find a willing suitor except a young, equally horny Satyr. The Satyr – a mythical figure half countertenor, half singing goat – is embodied by Dominique Visse who visibly relishes every part of it, including the costume that is realistic down to the not-so-tiniest anatomical detail.
To leave a slightly disguised Umberto Chiummo on stage during the scenes where his Giove assumes the form of Diana (see picture above), too, was a fine inspiration, too. Chiummo acts and lip-syncs with aplomb while Monica Bacelli (Diana) sings from the darkened pit in front of the stage. (The one exception is Giove singing his own part in falsetto in conversation with Geraldine McGreevy’s Giunone, clinging to his disguise even though his act is obviously up.)
There are many more similar (if less obvious) touches in the direction – and as a result the rather cockamamie story is told in a way to make it riveting, plausible, and highly entertaining theater. The acting of the singers is fearsomely good – Sally Matthews’ clear, strong voiced Calisto, Umberto Chiummo’s strapping Giove, Monica Bacelli’s lyrical and charming Diana, Guy de Mey’s uproarious Linfea, and Dominique Visse’s inspired Satirino foremost.
This is a well honed ensemble and there is always that hint of self-deprecating irony in the scenes that are most over-the-top, saving the adventure from being pathetically hammed up in the sense of that most awful of haw-haw knee-slapping humor all too often found in opera. To mention all the delicious details of this production would make for a tediously long review; to mention just a few would not get the cohesion of it all across. Suffice it to say that with vocal contributions that were excellent throughout (countertenor Lawrence Zazzo’s Endimione, Vito Priante’s Silvano, and Markus Werba’s Mercurio need to be mentioned, also), the Calisto from Munich makes for the shortest three hours of baroque opera you will ever have experienced. For me it was one of the operatic highlights of this year and well beyond.
All pictures © Wilfried Hösl, published with kind permission of the Staatsoper München.