CAVALLI: La Calisto

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 Faustiniís 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. Calistoís actions invoke the wrath of both Diana
herself, and of Joveís 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 Faustiniís 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 dellíarte. Thus Jove bears the attributes
of the blustery ìCaptainî; 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 ìdisguised as
Dianaî 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 Joveís 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 ìJove,î not ìDiana,î and we are meant
to read the seduction as just more of the comic business that pervades the

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) whoñaccording to the librettoñdesires 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, Poppeaís nurse in
Monteverdiís Líincoronatione di Poppea. Jacobsís Linfea is
played by the tenor Alexander Oliver, and the role is transcribed to a lower
register. While this ìreadingî 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 Jacobsís musical decisions regarding the score of Cavalliís
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 ìmuseum piece,î but as a medium that will appeal
directly to modern audiences. As a result, he transforms Cavalliís 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 Cavalliís 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 ìsceneryî changes. In
Cavalliís 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 Jacobsís 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 composerís original intentions. In any
event, the result of Jacobsís 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 Hellerís Emblems of Eloquence, which
features a chapter on the opera, as well as Jennifer Williams Brownís
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 oneís 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 Calistoís 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 Endymionís plight; and Dominique
Visse, as the young satyr, is a wonder to watch on stage.

An evening spent with Jacobsís Calisto may very well leave
viewers wanting to experience more seventeenth-century opera, and thatís
certainly, as Martha Stewart would say, a good thing.

Beth Glixon
University of Kentucky

image_description=Francesco Cavalli: La Calisto
product_title=Francesco Cavalli: La Calisto
product_by=Maria Bayo, Marcello Lippi, Hans Peter Kammerer, Graham Pushee, Louise Winter, Alexander Oliver, Dominique Visse, Barry Banks, Reinhard Dorn, Sonia Theodoridou, Robin Tyson, Concerto Vocale, RenÈ Jacobs.
Recorded 20 March 1996, ThȂtre Royal de la Monnaie, Brussels.
product_id=Harmonia Mundi HMD9909001.02 [2DVDs]