La Calisto, written for the Venetian carnival, premiered in 1651. The story is mythological, combining two tales: the seduction of the nymph Calisto by Jupiter, and the love affair between the goddess Diana and the shepherd Endymion. The myth of the nymph Calisto is quite interesting: to seduce the nymph, who is devoted to Artemis, Jupiter takes the form of Diana herself, exploiting homoerotic attraction to deceive Calisto. This myth is a patriarchal revisiting of older myths (and practices) whereby young “nymphs” were initiated into adulthood by “goddesses” (older, wiser women), giving us a glimpse of an ancient world with strong matriarchal components.

Christiane Karg (Calisto) © Wilfried Hösl
Christiane Karg (Calisto)
© Wilfried Hösl

The opera offers reflections on the destiny of humanity and expressions of melancholic love intertwined with lewd farce. Giovanni Faustini, the librettist, highlights the different aspects in a clever way. A trio of characters represents ancient deities: the god Pan, his servant Silvano, and a young satyr (Satirino). They celebrate sensual desires and are in charge of most of the raunchy comedy. All the verses they sing end with proparoxytone words, i.e., words with stress on the antepenultimate (third last) syllable, like "cinema". Most Italian words have the accent on the penultimate syllable (like "potato"), so that a long string of verses ending with this unusual stress has a comic effect. The accent of the words also forces a peculiar shape on the musical phrases, helping to set these characters apart from the rest, who sing or speak in more natural Italian. This is a splendid exemplification of the interplay between words and music in early Baroque.

Dominique Visse (Satirino) and Guy de Mey (Linfea) © Wilfried Hösl
Dominique Visse (Satirino) and Guy de Mey (Linfea)
© Wilfried Hösl

The lewd farce aspect of the opera is the one chosen by David Alden as the leitmotif of his production, which is set in a 1970s brothel/nightclub, with bright neon lights, colourful psychedelic décor, and flamboyant costumes (by Buki Shiff). Gods and mortals all seem to be part of a show: Jupiter descends the stairs in a smart tuxedo as a show host; Calisto sings one of her arias on the stage. Alden goes for visually striking images, and hits the mark.

The character of Calisto is more faceted than most in the operas of this period. As a follower of Diana, she wants to die a virgin, but she is ready to fall for Diana herself, engaging in kisses and embraces that lead to a pregnancy (Diana being Jupiter in disguise). The harsh punishment put on her by Juno, who turns her into a bear, is turned by Jupiter into a blessing when he gives her immortality and ascends her to the heavens in the form of the Ursa Major constellation. Christiane Karg managed to convey all the different aspects of Calisto; her high, silvery soprano was perfectly suited to the character, and her acting was always on point.

Christiane Karg (Calisto) and Anna Bonitatibus (Diana) © Wilfried Hösl
Christiane Karg (Calisto) and Anna Bonitatibus (Diana)
© Wilfried Hösl

Diana was Anna Bonitatibus, a master of Baroque singing. Her voice was warm and uniform throughout its range, with an exciting ring in the upper register. Her coloratura was sparkling, and her duets with countertenor Tim Mead (Endymione) were the highlight of the evening. Mead was beguiling as the languorous lover; his countertenor was elegant, smooth, never edgy, perfectly supported on the breath.

Luca Tittoto impressed with his powerful, warm bass as Jupiter. He spared us his falsetto when disguised as Diana, but mouthed the words while Bonitatibus sang from the pit. His acting was perfectly suited to the arrogant King of the Gods.

This is a Cavalli opera, so a man in drag playing an older woman is unavoidable. This time it’s not a nurse, but an older nymph, Linfea, who is tired of being a virgin and wants a husband. Tenor Guy de May was brilliant; he managed to be bawdy (there was an hilarious strip-tease), but still sang every note perfectly and pronounced every word. He kept the squeals to a minimum.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about Dominque Visse, who, as Satirino, squealed much more than he sang. His extremely high countertenor, bright at the very top, lost focus in the medium-high register, and he compensated by talking and shouting, with problems both in intonation and pronunciation. The other two “panic” singers, the god Pan (tenor Martin Mitterrutzner) and Silvano (Alexander Milev) gave a good, focused performance in the most outrageous outfits.

Alexander Milev (Silvanno) and Martin Mitterrutzner (Pan) © Wilfried Hösl
Alexander Milev (Silvanno) and Martin Mitterrutzner (Pan)
© Wilfried Hösl

Karina Gauvin was a wonderful actress as the jealous, enraged Juno. Her soprano was smooth and agile, although somewhat lacking projection. The cast was completed by tenor Georg Nigl as Mercury; he had a beautiful voice, but a tendency to growl excessively for comic effect.

The period orchestra was under the baton of Christopher Moulds, who gave an energetic and powerful reading of the score. Their performance was brilliant, but I will never forgive the conductor for cutting the Dance of the Bears, one of the score's best bits!

****1