There are a lot of operas where I wish I could keep the music and get a completely different plot. And yet I keep going to operas. “Boy, that’s good music.” Such is the case with La Calisto. In this 1651 opera, Giove (Jove, from Roman mythology) is smitten by the title character, but Calisto is a chaste devotee of Diana. So Giove takes on the guise of Diana in order to seduce her. Yeah. OK. Giunone (Juno), Giove’s wife, figures out what is going on, and punishes Calisto by turning her into a bear. Oh. Well, Giunone does warn Calisto about Giove-as-Diana, but Calisto is too enamored to pay attention. Giove then reveals himself to Calisto and tells her that he will elevate her into the heavens as a constellation, so she will spend eternity with the Gods. They sing a rapturous love duet. So it all ends happily. Really it does.
Francesco Cavalli’s La Callisto, with libretto by Giovanni Faustini, was presented by Harvard Early Music Society on December 8th in Harvard’s Farkas Hall on Holyoke Street. Ryaan Ahmed, Music Director, was an adept conductor from the theorbo, and Giselle Ty was the stage director.
Interwoven around this plot are many dramatic conventions. A prologue with anthropomorphized aspects of existence: Nature and Eternity, who welcome the audience, and Destiny, who reveals the ending, that Calisto will be elevated to the heavens, just because she (Destiny) wants it. Diana and Endimione are a secondary love interest, a trio of Satyrs provide comic relief, dance scenes end the first two acts, and a chorus concludes the opera. Despite some mis-steps in the performance, the opera engaged and held attention and is sure to only get better in the next performances.
It was the golden age of recitative: text heightened through the completely nuanced and flexible musical language, the human voice and a sparse basso continuo. Because of its lack of rhythmic regularity, the style is extraordinarily suited to convey both words and emotions. The arias, with fixed rhythmic frameworks, express sayings or observations; but it is in the recitative that the whirl of emotions come through. Certainly there are some duets, but the recitative contains the emotional core of the work, and everyone gets a chance to express themselves through it.
In the demanding title role, Erika Vogel was attractive and sympathetic, and her voice was beautiful, if not always precise in the florid passagework. Giove and his sidekick, Mercurio, are like a couple of frat buddies with their chummy scheme, that Giove disguises himself as Diana to seduce Calisto. Jacob Cooper was excellent as the Giove of weakness and longing — beset by desire, and then, wearing Diana’s dress and singing in a cracked falsetto, as funny as Jack Lemmon in Some Like It Hot. (Cooper was less convincing as the regal, imposing god; a difficult role after all the comic antics.) I wondered (abstractly) if it might be possible to cast the Diana singer to portray Giove in Diana’s body, so that the audience would see the Giove/Diana that the characters see. That too would have a lot of comic (not to mention erotic) potential, for a singer who could layer artifices of swagger and femininity.
That the ruler of the universe feels no compunction about lying to get what he wants (Mercurio even has an aria praising the value of lying) and has no forethought about the consequences of his actions, just makes him look like so many modern male politicians. Giove remains head of the Gods despite his deceit, and is revered in the last act; Calisto, rather than expressing anger at being tricked, feels only affection for him; well, it’s all a male fantasy, isn’t it?
As Diana, Rachel Gitner had some lovely tones, but no lower register and didn’t seem at home in the Italian language. Leslie Tay conveyed the hapless God Pane (Pan) with comic pathos, but the part was too high for his range. Alexandra Dietrich was compelling both as Natura, in the prologue, and as Linfea, follower of Diana who is questioning her own vow of celibacy. Pane’s satyr sidekicks (Jared Levin as Silvano, and Roselin Osser as Satirino) brought excellent comic energy to their parts as well as vocal adeptness and skilled slapstick physicality: the playful satyr Satirino spies on Diana and Endimione, and tries to persuade Linfea that a boy/goat is what she is looking for in a man. I hope to hear Osser sometime in a more lyrical role.
Endimione — the shepherd/astronomer (shepherd/astronomer?) in love with Diana — was played with sensitivity by Gerrod Pagenkopf, but I wondered if this role could be turned into a comic one. His lamenting and pining for Diana could be pushed to something edgy and madcap, and might be played with a wider range of vocal color. Claire Raphaelson, as Giunone, drew her convincingly as a complex character — frustrated in her unhappy marriage, and realizing that her vengeance on Calisto was an inadequate response. Raphaelson demonstrated expressivity, nuance, and also vocal power, for instance in her aria addressed to all unhappy wives.
Even with its flaws I loved the freshness and intimacy of the production, for instance, seeing the musicians just below the stage, sometimes involved in the drama (as when they added bleating sounds to the satyrs’ antics). The musical ensemble of eight — two harpsichords, two theorbos, vihuela, cello, and two violins — was sometimes thin (not helped by the extremely dry acoustic), and I often wished for more warmth from the bowed strings (I know they are baroque violins, but it seems unwise that vibrato is strictly verboten). The ensemble sometimes produced some real fire, as in the clattering cascade at the entrance of the Furies, who enact Gionone’s revenge on Calisto.
Farkas Hall has been renamed (from New College Hall) so recently that there aren’t any signs yet with the new name. It offers excellent sight lines and an intimate atmosphere (holding 270), and the steep descent of the seating allowed the Gods of the prologue to descend, not via machinery from the heavens, but down the aisle from the back of the audience. One problem was a ventilating system; I actually briefly wondered if it might be a sound effect — rushing wind or crashing waves? Luckily it stopped sometime in act two.
Additional performances are on Dec. 10 at 8 pm and Dec. 11 at 3 pm.