March 17th, 2009 5:33 pm | by JOHN MINERVINI News | Posted In: Multnomah County, CLEAN UP

Cruising for Nymphs: La Calisto Reviewed


So you thought Monteverdi was the only Baroque Venetian who's getting any play these days? You thought wrong. In the wake of several prestigious revivals in the UK and Europe, Portland Opera has decided to stage Francesco Cavalli's La Calisto, an edgy show, and Cavalli's last collaboration with renowned librettist Giovanni Faustini.

The results are frankly mixed, but you can't blame the score or the libretto. From the perspective of stagecraft, everything about this show—from the motley costumes to the inexperienced, under-directed cast to the cheap-looking, astronomically-themed, metallic mobile hanging over center stage—seemed slightly undercooked.

That makes it sound bad, but it wasn't. Some things (particularly the instrumental music, orchestrated and performed by Portland Baroque Orchestra) were great. Rather, on the whole, it was…inconclusive. Which is a shame, considering it represented so many firsts for Portland Opera. It's the first time they have produced a show at PCPA's Newmark Theater; it's the first time they have collaborated with Portland Baroque Orchestra; and it's the first time they've staged Cavalli.

So go see La Calisto, if you have the $75 to spare, but don't set your expectations too high. Rather, think of it as a palette cleanser between two shows to which Portland Opera is actually, seriously committed: The Turn of the Screw and Rigoletto.

THE PLOT: Cruising for nymphs, Giove (Jonathan Kimple) spies a hottie and makes his move. But his intended conquest, Calisto (Sharin Apostolou), has taken a vow of chastity; she affirms her devotion to the goddess Diana and scampers off. Not easily deterred, Giove soon succeeds in bedding Calisto by disguising himself as her goddess and inviting her for a private “kissing” session in the woods.

And of course, Calisto loves it. But word gets out that she's botched the whole chastity thing, and misfortune follows close behind. Specifically, she is kicked out of Diana's sect and transformed into a bear by Giove's jealous wife, Giunone (Angela Niederloh). Pregnant and alone, Calisto can only take solace in the fact that after her death, Giove will take her into the heavens and make her into a constellation of stars: Ursa Major.

Businessmen with inconvenient extramarital affairs take note: Mistress got you down? Shoot her into outer space.

La Calisto

Meanwhile, Diana has her own flirtation to contend with; she's jonesin' for a femmy shepherd, Endimione (Gerald Thompson). Problem is, she's supposed to be the goddess of chastity. So somehow she's got to keep their assignations secret both from the curious eyes of her chaste devotees and from the jealous glance of the satyrs. Because if Diana ever decides to go in for some sex, those satyrs want to be first in line.

What's interesting is that the two plot lines never really converge: librettist Faustini chose them for their thematic, not narrative, links. Together, they present a juxtaposition of two differing conceptions of love: the carnal and the spiritual. And in case you missed it, there's some real gender-bending going on here, both in terms of role reversal (virile Diana, passive Endimione) and same-sex encounters (two females: Calisto and Diana).

The carnal-spiritual dichotomy—especially as rendered by Baroque dramatists—sounds pretty stilted to modern ears. But the gender-bending theme, at least, has the potential to make audiences uncomfortable, and to get them thinking.

Although it has recently come into vogue to cast Endimione as a pants role for a woman, Portland Opera's choice to use a countertenor is actually closer to the intention of the composer and librettist. During the 17th century, Endimione would have been played by a castrato—a male who had been castrated at a young age to preserve his soprano singing voice. Gross? Yeah. Inhumane? Definitely. The practice has been illegal since 1870, before the advent of audio recording technology, so modern audiences don't even know what such a voice would sound like.

Strangely, these castrati—who grew into tall, smooth, androgynous adults—were looked on not with pity or repulsion; rather, they were seen as the most sensuous of men, an object of desire for both adult women and men.

Times have changed. Whereas audiences at the Venetian premier would have been attracted to the feminized Endimione, modern audiences are more likely to experience a combination of morbid fascination and repulsion. Don't get me wrong—Gerald Thompson does a great job. But it gets you thinking. Is Endimione's high voice antithetical to his manliness? What about his other archetypically feminine traits: crying, fainting, being taken hostage? What Endimione and Diana have going is, after all a heterosexual (albeit Platonic) flirtation; they just both happen to be singing in the soprano register.

The gender-bending theme is furthered by another conspicuous casting decision: the choice to have Satirino (Anne McKee Reed) played by a woman. Traditionally, Satirino—who tries to woo Linfea (Kendra Herrington), a chaste follower of Diana—has been depicted as an adolescent male, and Linfea resists his suit because he is a half-goat. But in Portland Opera's production, that initial aversion to bestiality becomes code for an (admittedly fleeting) timidity about engaging in a homosexual encounter.

Although such updating can often feel gimmicky or forced, in this case it is neither. The satyrs were included in the opera by Faustini to provide a bawdy commentary on the rest of the action, and a randy lesbian half-goat fits perfectly within the existing thematic schema. Somewhat less appealing was the way in which Reed paired her vulgar come-ons to Linfea with vulgar singing—the bawdiest lines were performed in a style somewhere between broadway musical and punk rock. Didn't work.

As for sets and wardrobe, don't expect much. At their best, the costumes evoke Dolce and Gabbana on desert safari (Giove, Mercurio, Diana), but they're hardly even across the cast, and at their worst, they look like whatever-we-had-in-the-prop-closet. Unaccountably, although the rest of the singers are clad in earth tones, Giunone (Angela Niederloh) wears a blue princess gown, and she ends up resembling one of the ugly stepsisters from Disney's Cinderella.

Perhaps in order to distract from the austerity of its design, the show is set on a steeply-sloped platform, the stark flatness of which is interrupted by only four motionless set pieces: a boulder, a log and two stunted trees. There is absolutely no textual grounds for staging La Calisto as though it were Waiting for Godot, but I can think of at least one practical reason: cost. As a result, this production takes on the by-hook-or-by-crook feel of a college show—spirited, but with visible duct tape.

Vocal performances were generally competent but unexceptional. Sharin Apostolou lent her very pure soprano to the title role, performing several impressive trills early on. But whereas she brought more than ample naiveté to the part, Apostolou lacked the expressive anguish necessary to carry off Calisto's exacting recitative in the second act. Baroque recitative isn't for the faint of heart, and anyway, Cavalli didn't lavish his best composing on the title role. Although librettist Faustini may have intended to build the opera around the story of Calisto and Giove, Cavalli preferred the platonic trysts of Diana and Endimione, and it's during their encounters—especially the duet “Dolcissimi baci”—that the music reaches its apogee.

As previously mentioned, Gerald Thompson gives an inspired—if unsettling—performance as Endimione, but the best all-round is definitely soprano Hannah Penn. As Diana, her voice is strong but searching and ethereal, and as Giove-in-Diana, she's got testosterone to spare. During those scenes, she's at least twice as manly as Jonathan Kimple, whose lackluster performance as Giove leaves a lot to be desired. Bravo, also, to alto Kendra Herrington (Linfea) and tenor Jose Rubio (Mercurio), whose solid singing and modern comic sensibilities livened the show in its in-between moments.

Although most audience members won't ever know it, the one truly remarkable aspect of this show was its orchestration, by Portland Baroque Orchestra conductor Robert Ainsley. Although Cavalli wrote out parts for his singers, he frequently provided only a bare-bones outline—the movement of the bass note—for his instrumentalists. For that reason, a capable orchestration is absolutely essential to modern stagings.

Ainsley deserves credit for a wonderful arrangement: his artful yet conservative continuo takes full advantage of the courtly, crystalline tonalities of the Baroque. It contains moments of touching whimsy—a descending harpsichord glissando to denote bewilderment, an elegant framing of a falling vocal tritone in Act I—and yet it does not distract from the action of the opera. It's true: at times the players don't seem quite up to the music—the cornetti, in particular, were rather shortwinded—but the chamber music itself outshines the other elements of the performance by half.

La Calisto plays in PCPA's Newmark Theater at 7:30 pm March 19 and 21. Click here for tickets ($75+)
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