Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Cavalli - La Calisto (Strasbourg, 2017)


Francesco Cavalli - La Calisto

L'Opéra National du Rhin, Strasbourg - 2017

Christophe Rousset, Mariame Clément, Elena Tsallagova, Vivica Genaux, Giovanni Battista Parodi, Nikolay Borchev, Filippo Mineccia, Raffaella Milanesi, Guy de Mey, Vasily Khoroshev, Jaroslaw Kitala, Lawrence Olsworth-Peter 

Culturebox - 2 May 2017

There is a distinct tone of melancholic longing pervading La Calisto (1651) that sets it apart from most other Cavalli operas that we have since been able to rediscover in more recent years. That familiar tone is certainly there is the romps of Elena and Il Giasone, but those works encompass a much greater emotional range in their adventurous blend of farce and raw humanity, while La Calisto's melancholy tread through classical myth seems rather academic by comparison. La Calisto is however by no means any lesser a work, since what seems to be a narrower focus is actually a deeper and more expansive exploration of different aspects of one of the most agonising of human sentiments; the longing to love and be loved in return.

This single unifying theme that runs throughout the opera manifests itself however in a surprising number of ways. It may have a mythological treatment in Ovid's story that plays out between immortal gods, wood nymphs and satyrs in a setting of antiquity, but the sentiments that afflicts these poor creatures in Cavalli's treatment is recognisably human. The balance of humans aspiring to the godlike immortality that love conveys on them is also rather well brought out in this 2017 production directed by Mariame Clément for L'Opéra National du Rhin in Strasbourg.

There's no-one left unaffected by this sense of longing in La Calisto, but some of them know better than others what to do about it. It's the chaste nature of the goddess Diana who inadvertently sows much of the confusion. She can't help that Endymion composes rapturous verses to her, but his love might not be as hopeless as you would expect, and the goddess is strangely moved by his devotion. Young and old, no-one is immune from the torments of love. Even Diana's elderly nymph assistant Lymphea isn't too old to want a bit of love in her life (much like Helen's maid, Astianassa in Elena or Delfa in Il Giasone), but she's not that desperate that she will submit to the advances of the young satyr Satirino, although she'll happily play him along for a while.


Jupiter too is no novice at this game, and it's the poor nymph Calisto who is cruelly deceived this time by his tricks. Led on by Mercury, he disguises himself as Diana in order to seduce the young maiden. And, just like the inconsiderate rulers who are determined to have their own way against the run of nature in the subsequent opera seria treatment of such subjects, Jupiter's actions cause even greater consternation and misery for the lovelorn characters of La Calisto. Believing it to be Diana acting in this manner, the satyr Pan feels emboldened to pursue his own less than noble intentions for the haughty goddess, and he's prepared to use violent means to get what he wants.

There are a lot of unhappy lovers in La Calisto then, each involved in situations that are far from ideal. Let's not forget Juno either, who is married to such as louse, and once again having to deal with the fall-out of her husband's philandering. Cavalli has beautiful laments for each of them, and since it's not opera seria, there is nothing generic about any of them. And also since it's not opera seria, there are no sudden revelations of long lost princes believed dead or sudden gaining of a conscience by a ruler to sort everything out, so there remains a more realistic bittersweet character to the music and the sentiments expressed in La Calisto, where the realisation is reached that "The dying of one kiss gives birth to another", and that as a consequence "Joy is infinite".

The character of those heart-rending laments and beautiful melodies is brought out beautifully by Christophe Rousset even though this opera doesn't adhere to the strong rhythmic pulse that characterises his interpretations of much of the other baroque work of Lully and Rameau. Here, with the period instruments of his Les Talens Lyriques ensemble, there is a rich, delicate and sympathetic treatment of the music and the sentiments behind it.

Mariame Clément's direction and Julia Hansen's set and costume designs are also wonderfully sympathetic towards the work, maintaining much of its classical antiquity in terms of dress and a traditional depiction of mythological creatures, but framing it quite nicely within the more down-to-earth setting of a bear-pit in a zoo. That might not seem the obvious setting for La Calisto, but it is one that permits a bear to be used (Calisto is transformed into a bear by Juno before being redeemed into the Great Bear constellation by Jupiter). It's the ingenious stage-craft however that allows it to work so well, the production flowing seamlessly between a variety of scenes that they are able to set within the high walls of the pit, in the bear house and around it.


Clément's direction is also responsible for establishing the right kind of tone of the work, with a lightness of touch that doesn't undermine it with too much comedy. Most of the comedy is visual, whether it's Jupiter swaggering around with a cigar trying to emulate a female walk as Diana, or the dangly bits jiggled about by the satyrs. Nor is there too much reliance on the modern-day framing device. The antiquity seems to be a parallel telling of a modern-day office romance situation, where Endymion and Pan are rivals for the affections of their ice-maiden boss Diana. None of this is forced however, the production flitting between the situations as required, the costumes not strictly one period or another, with Jupiter and Juno dressed in formal evening wear from the 1940s, Mercury wearing 90s' street gear or transforming into a circus ringmaster according to the whims of the setting and music.

Elena Tsallagova is the bright star of the show - in more ways than one obviously). She gives a bright, youthful and sparkling performance as Calisto, her singing clear and controlled, handling the requirements of the role with great facility and expression. Vivica Genaux likewise provides an enjoyable turn as Diana (and Jupiter as Diana), fully in the spirit of the piece, bright and luminous, with just the right edge of goddess coolness that reflects the uncertainty of feelings that don't become her position. Without overplaying their hand, Giovanni Battista Parodi's Jupiter, Nikolay Borchev's Mercury and Filippo Mineccia's Pan and Raffaella Milanesi's Juno all contribute to the seemingly effortless lightness that Clément and Rousset weave around Cavalli's beautiful score.

Links: L'Opéra National du Rhin, Culturebox