La Calisto: Opera Review

Courtesy of the Pacific Opera Project
Baroque opera presented with cheeky, hip and DIY attitude that ironically feels remarkably authentic to the spirit of the 1651 Venetian original in this Los Angeles premiere.

Francesco Cavalli's Baroque opera is staged with a cheeky sensibility in Highland Park.

A 1912 neighborhood meetinghouse has been converted into cabaret seating for the brash local premiere of La Calisto (1651), Francesco Cavalli‘s enduring yet obscure opera.  A pagan pastorale here set in an urban pocket playground splashed with graffiti and dominated by two public toilets (“Uomini” and “Donne”), whose flushing punctuates the warbling peccadilloes of lecherous gods and nymphs precariously sworn to chastity. Since there is much cross-dressing and pan-gender impersonation and ambiguity, it has a contemporary elan, rather than austere, forbidding High Art, that seeks to be most neighborhood-friendly and appropriate to the sensibilities of the generation of the youthful artists.

Opera in its infancy was much more a popular -- even mass -- art than a grand one, as socially suspect as the theater. The Church would certainly not sanction the free-loving plot: Jove (Ryan Thorn), king of the gods, descends from the heavens with his wily son Mercury (Adrian Rosales) to lust after the fair Calisto (Claire Averill), who spurns his divine virility having pledged fealty to the celibate huntress-goddess Diana (Sarah Beaty), not inconsequentially Jove’s daughter and a woman much-fancied by the besotted commoner Endimione (Bryan Pollock) and the horny and horned god Pan (E. Scott Levin). In the second act, when Jove’s aggrieved and vengeful wife Juno (Daria Sommers) tracks her errant husband to his earthly mischief, the battle of sopranos really heats up. (Spoiler alert: the scandal results in Calisto becoming not merely a genuine star, but a whole constellation: Ursa Major.)

While drawing on Classical myths (mostly from Ovid), the convoluted wooing certainly marks this as a populist period sex comedy masquerading under feints at high-minded culture, with which this freewheeling, unashamedly vulgar, production sympathizes profoundly, with its profusion of mock phalluses. The music, however, is consistently heavenly, not so intricately scored (though the eight-piece period instrument band is probably bigger than what Cavalli had in Venice), but sublimely unscoring catchy hooks of ceaselessly beautiful singing lines. It may be bawdy, if somewhat repetitive, as a theatrical entertainment, but as musical drama it’s ineffably gorgeous to hear.

I had only been familiar with the piece from the groundbreakingly influential 1970 Raymond Leppard recording that helped resurrect interest in early baroque opera generally, although his adaptation no longer passes muster with ears now more sophisticatedly attuned to convincingly “authentic” practice. Cavalli was a dominating creative force in developing the form over most of the 17th century. Though not of the stature of Monteverdi, his work remains important, fresh and unerringly tuneful. (Giasone and Xerxes are more monumental, though not as funny.)

This youngish company has a real command of the original idiom, which has been adapted for improvisatory flourish and judgment calls on fill-ins with great respect. Contrastingly, the English supertitles are unabashedly translated into street vernacular that does not do any violence to the text and really energizes the action, a nose-thumb at tradition that ought to be more widely emulated.

Indeed, by layering self-mocking hipster attitudes and up-to-date temperament onto early opera, this Pacific Opera Project offering confers a legitimate respect to the material. They don’t compromise their art to make the work accessible; they use the principle of satisfying their audience to achieve a more genuine and invigorated artistic rigor. Opera as a socially and economically exclusive institution recycling warhorses for a narrow-minded orthodoxy has long been on its lingering death-cycle. Getting back to its roots could be the most vivifying course imaginable. Charging $20 for a general admission seat, or $30 for a nightclub table with decent snack food, invites an expanded, excluded audience and keeps the art alive.

Are these world-class singers? No, but they are capable, persuasive, lovely to hear (indeed, substantially better than good enough), and incidentally can execute low comedy in high dudgeon with a savvier sense of timing than can actors, directors and editors of today’s cinema. It’s elitist and terminally foolish to insist that the standard of “only the best” of opera matters; it’s the same as saying that in essence the art of opera doesn’t really matter at all.

POP could be called revolutionary, but maybe they are just applying smarts to their passion. Bring the art form back to the people, and, perhaps, like returning Antaeus to the healing contact with the earth (through his goddess-earthmother Gaia), he can spring forth to fight renewed in strength. When Hercules discovered this, he lifted Antaeus to a place high above his head, where he could then slowly strangle him. That’s not just a myth, it’s a parable, folks. 

Venue: Pacific Opera Project (POP), Ebell Club, Highland Park (through May 10)

Cast: Claire Averill, Ryan Thorn, Sarah Beaty, Daria Somers, Bryan Pollock, Adrian Rosales, E. Scott Levin, Patrick Dailey, Joseph von Buhler, Phil Meyer, Monica Alfredsen, Emma-Grace Dunbar, Amy Lawrence

Composer: Francesco Cavalli

Libretto: Giovanni Faustini, supertitles by Stephen Karr

Stage Director, Set & Lighting: Josh Shaw

Conductor & Musical Director: Stephen Karr

Costumes: Maggie Green

Graffiti Artist: Katie Dunbar

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