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David Alden's La Calisto at the Bavarian State Opera: A Dreamboat Production

Picture courtesy Bavarian State opera, © Wilfried Hösl

The Bavarian State Opera’s David Alden production of La Calisto are the three shortest hours I’ve enjoyed anywhere in an opera house. The wild story about Jupiter's lust for the nymph Calisto, who is eventually turned into a bear by his jealous wife, Juno (and then into the big dipper) is such a romp and such pure entertainment, it’s like going to the movies. All the signature items of an Alden production are there: loud colors, creative costumes, polished floors, zebra-striped walls and curved laminated wood paneling—courtesy Paul Steinberg’s set and Buki Shiff's wildly diverse costumes, which range from a Tin Woodman-business suit for Mercury to a beautifully realistic Chameleon-butler to a salaciously detailed faun costume for Satirino, a creature half goat, half countertenor Dominique Visse (who has played the part in every of the now four runs of La Calisto).

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Francesco Cavalli, La Calisto

Only the plastic machine gun of Giove’s was new to this revival and pathetic as every fake machine gun on stage must invariably be. That prop has never worked and won’t likely ever will. That’s annoying, as are the fake smoking of fake cigarettes and drinking from empty plastic glasses. I might expect such cheap cardinal sins of staging from more provincial houses, but not the Bavarian State Opera. Pet peeves of mine though those are, what can they matter when compared to the saucy joviality of the work, and the beguiling music of Pietro Francesco Caletti-Bruni (1602-1676), better known as Francesco Cavalli.

The best of Alden’s productions are acts of light genius, ever straddling the fence between high camp and cleverness, and always coming down on the right side. That’s certainly true for this one, and his deft touches show everywhere. One example: When Giove (Luca Tittoto, dashing between bravado, bluster, and meekness) impersonates Diana (to get Calisto, the chaste follower of Diana into the sack) Anna Bonitatibus’s sings from the darkened pit in front of the stage while Tittoto acts and lip-syncs with aplomb on stage, flimsily disguised as Diana. There is one exception: Giove sings his part in falsetto when conversing with Karina Gauvin’s Giunone when he clings to his disguise even though his act is obviously up.

Nikolay Borchev’s Mercurio—Giove’s Leporello of sorts—started a little congested but came through in stalwart manner. Anna Bonitatibus, as Diana (on and off stage) championed a fruity mezzo with vibrato and volume to fit a performance that played everything up. For comedic effect, she would channel an Erika-Köth-memorial-vibrato that challenged the goat bleating of Dominique Visse, but as Diana she went back to a plainer gorgeousness. In the love-quest sideshow, maybe-not-so-chaste-Diana-after-all falls hard for her tall dark stranger Endimione who convinced vocally and visually with rare boyish-yet-manly countertenor charm and sonority.

Sally Matthew created the role of Calisto for Alden and so threw herself into her part, that it seemed impossible to repeat the success with subsequent casts. I was proven wrong by a fine second cast some years ago, and again on January 15th, when Danielle de Niese and her colleagues on stage showed that this production will make any good singing actor shine. De Niese is a brilliant young operatic plaything who wiggles and struggles like Penelope (Pepe le Pew’s love interest in the Warner Brothers cartoons) while making big innocent eyes that would put Bugs Bunny to shame. It’s a different kind of act than Matthew’s: more visceral, with a warm, pretty, and slightly forgettable voice, but she certainly filled Calisto’s leotard with aplomb.

Ivor Bolton, the linchpin of Munich's Baroque revivals, uses a specially created edition of the score by Álvaro Torrente which applies much appreciated and very prudent cuts. The band, which performed entirely on period instruments for the first time when this La Calisto was first shown in 2005, was in fine fettle and just a little kick and jolt shy of a perfect night. Let’s hope the set gets a good shine and another few revivals.

January 2014

Cast list:

Bavarian State Opera
La Calisto
Francesco Cavalli

Bavarian State Opera Orchestra
Ivor Bolton (conductor)
David Alden (director)
Paul Steinberg (stage)
Buki Shiff (costumes)
Beate Vollack (choreography)
Pat Collins (lighting)

Calisto (Danielle de Niese)
Giove (Luca Tittoto)
Diana, Il Destino (Anna Bonitatibus)
Endimione (Tim Mead)
Giunone, L’Eternità (Karina Gauvin)
Satirino, La Natura (Dominique Visse)
Mercurio (Nikolay Borchev)
et al.

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