08 Oct 2007
CAVALLI: La Calisto
René Jacobs’s beautiful 1996 production of Francesco Cavalli’s Calisto has garnered many enthusiastic fans over the years.
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René Jacobs’s beautiful 1996 production of Francesco Cavalli’s Calisto has garnered many enthusiastic fans over the years.
Now available on DVD, as well as on CDs that were issued in the 1990s, it will certainly draw a new audience to the sensuous world of seventeenth-century Venetian opera. Cavalli was the leading composer of opera in Venice during the 1650s, and Calisto (which premiered in November 1651) finds him at the height of his powers.
Giovanni Faustini’s mythologically based libretto for Calisto tells the story of the amorous trials of two couples: Calisto, a female devotee of the goddess Diana, and her pursuer, Jove; and Diana herself, and the shepherd Endymion. As a follower of Diana, Calisto has rejected carnal relations with men; as a result, in order to win her affection, Jove disguises himself as Diana, and Calisto willingly follows him in that guise to enjoy carnal pleasure. Calisto’s actions invoke the wrath of both Diana herself, and of Jove’s wife Juno. According to the myth, Calisto is transformed into a bear, and will later ascend to the firmament as the constellation Ursa Minor. Diana, in Faustini’s version, finally admits to loving Endymion; they remain devoted to each other, but their relationship remains unconsummated.
The Jacobs production, directed by the late Herbert Wernicke, is built around a set that displays allegorical representations of the constellations; most strikingly, at the conclusion of the opera the set darkens, the stars become visible, and Calisto ascends to take her place in the heavens. The three walls of the set remain constant throughout the opera; most of the characters enter and leave through trap doors, or, in the case of the gods, descend from the heavens. Another visually stunning moment finds the parched Calisto (whose thirst derives from the environmental devastation brought about by the fiery fall of Phaeton) relishing an immense silvery fabric that represents the stream created by Jove at the beginning of the first act.
For the most part, Jacobs and Wernicke read Calisto as a comedy, and extend this sense of comedy by having most of the characters represent stock figures from the commedia dell’arte. Thus Jove bears the attributes of the blustery “Captain”; Endimione is Pantaleone, while Satirino assumes the nature of Harlequin. Wernicke further exploited themes of comedy and vulgarity through graffiti (both sexually explicit and more generic) and a number of stage actions.
In any staging of Calisto, the musical director must make an important casting decision, because the music for Jove “disguised as Diana” is notated for a soprano, not in the lower vocal range Jove normally sings in. This presents two options in performance: either Jove himself will sing in falsetto, or the singer who plays Diana will appear as Jove-in-Diana, making Jove’s transformation all the more deceptive. Jacobs and Wernicke chose the first option, and this decision inevitably governed many other aspects of the opera. In this production, then, Jove-as-Diana is truly a comic figure; the audience sees “Jove,” not “Diana,” and we are meant to read the seduction as just more of the comic business that pervades the production.
One other comic element in the production continues a practice that Raymond Leppard initiated in his first performances of Calisto in the 1970s. The character Linfea (another young woman who is a follower of Diana) who–according to the libretto–desires to experience the sexual pleasure that Calisto has described after her encounter with Giove/Diana, is cast in the mold of the comic male nurse, most commonly known to modern audiences through the character of Arnalta, Poppea’s nurse in Monteverdi’s L’incoronatione di Poppea. Jacobs’s Linfea is played by the tenor Alexander Oliver, and the role is transcribed to a lower register. While this “reading” of Linfea works in a certain sense, a different sort of comedy would have resulted by presenting her as she was meant to be: a young girl looking for the pleasures of love.
Many of Jacobs’s musical decisions regarding the score of Cavalli’s opera are similar to those he has made in other recordings of seventeenth-century opera. Like the director Wernicke, Jacobs aims to present Baroque opera not as a “museum piece,” but as a medium that will appeal directly to modern audiences. As a result, he transforms Cavalli’s score into something more akin to late Baroque music: the orchestra is heavily expanded with wind and brass instruments, and it plays frequently (we know from contemporary accounts that Cavalli’s orchestra was quite small, with just a few string and continuo players). Moreover, additional music, some of it by other composers, has been inserted to cover “scenery” changes. In Cavalli’s original score, however, the string orchestra rarely accompanies the singers; as a result, when it does play, the musical and dramatic sense of the work is heightened. While Jacobs’s band offers some unaccompanied recitative, much of the score is orchestrated. Admittedly many modern players might be reluctant to take a job where they play so little, but there is precedence for adhering more to the composer’s original intentions. In any event, the result of Jacobs’s tinkering produces a vibrant, rich score, but one that would have been entirely unfamiliar (and perhaps unconceivable) to Cavalli in 1651.
Calisto has been the subject of a good deal of academic research in recent years. I would encourage viewers particularly interested in the opera to search out Wendy Heller’s Emblems of Eloquence, which features a chapter on the opera, as well as Jennifer Williams Brown’s magnificent edition of the opera (A-R Editions, Collegium Musicum, Yale University, 2007). Brown provides the most thorough discussion of the history of the opera and its performing issues heretofore available, along with a complete version of the libretto in Italian and English.
The fifty-four-minute documentary concerning the making of the production should certainly be viewed, whether before or after watching the performance of the opera. It provides an amazing look behind the scenes, and, can only increase one’s admiration for the energy and stamina of the singers as they enter and exit through the trap doors. The cast is top notch. Maria Bayo brings Calisto’s sensuality and pathos to life; Marcello Lippi easily elicits the comedic elements that Jacobs and Wernicke wanted to emphasize in Jove; Graham Pushee perfectly captures Endymion’s plight; and Dominique Visse, as the young satyr, is a wonder to watch on stage.
An evening spent with Jacobs’s Calisto may very well leave viewers wanting to experience more seventeenth-century opera, and that’s certainly, as Martha Stewart would say, a good thing.
University of Kentucky