Friday, July 18, 2014

Cincinnati Opera's first Baroque opera production ever probes playing around among the Olympians

Opera's origins among Italian aristocrats couldn't long keep the new art form from making its way with the general public. Among the early output in the post-courtly genre are the 30-odd operas of Francesco Cavalli, whose "La Calisto" opened Thursday night in Corbett Theater at Cincinnati's School for Creative and Performing Arts.

First performed  in Venice in 1651, "La Calisto"has been best known in modern times via Raymond Leppard's "realization." Some thickening of orchestral texture and other inauthentic touches generated sharp criticism of Leppard's work and may have helped prod his departure from his native England, much to the eventual benefit of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra.

Nathalie Paulin portrays a nymph victimized by godly lust.
Not being prepared to assess the musicological niceties connected with staging a centuries-old work, I  need to cite the context provided by Richard Taruskin in his "Oxford History of Western Music." Comparing early "commercial operas" to Broadway musicals, Taruskin says "they existed during their runs and revivals in a ceaseless maelstrom of negotiation and revision...and never attained the status of finished texts....They were esthetic objects  par excellence, not texts but performances, embodying much that was unwritten and unwritable, directed outward at their audience, not at history, the museum, posterity, the classroom....." (And just as with Broadway today, much of the patronage of Venice's public theaters was tourist trade, which helped spread the genre throughout Europe.)

That's the spirit in which Cincinnati Opera has mounted its production, directed imaginatively by Ted Huffman and performed with gusto by a cast of adept equilibrists — equally capable of comedy and searing pathos. Fashioning a production of material as subject to change as Taruskin indicates means that even printed synopses may differ from source to source.
His goatish mates looking on,Pan (Aaron Blake) declares his unquenchable love for Diana.

In Cincinnati, the crowning ensemble in the second act, promising the nymph Calisto residence in the starry firmament after her earthly transformation as a bear is complete, is poignantly followed by the heroine's forlorn solitude onstage to a lovely instrumental passage as the curtain falls. Some synopses suggest instead that the vision of her afterlife is the opera's conclusion.

And the grounded, glowing orb that Mercury leverages back into its heavenly position in the opening scene suggests that the scorched landscape Calisto laments has resulted from Phaeton's reckless driving of his father's sun-chariot more than from the "war between mankind and the gods" the program book blames.

Jove's thunderbolt to bring down Phaeton may have played a role in the destruction, of course, but his restoration effort has an ulterior, not so godly motive: He always relishes having an excuse to come down from Mount Olympus and let his eye rove. Daniel Okulitch made for a commanding figure in his supreme-god outfit, subject as Jove famously was to infidelity. The bass-baritone was also amusing in the god's dogged pursuit of Calisto disguised as the huntress-goddess Diana, displaying a powerful falsetto. Jove's  deception, suggested by Mercury, drives the main plot.

Calisto, sung ardently and accurately by Nathalie Paulin, pays for her gullibility by being exiled from the virgin band by the real Diana, given one of those well-balanced portrayals by Jennifer Johnson Cano. The balance is between the goddess' serious discipline of her followers (performed in leaping, athletic "drag" in this production) and her susceptibility to love's magnetic pull. An intellectual shepherd, Endymion (later a Romantic icon, thanks to the John Keats poem), is the object. He was sung feelingly, with just a few pitch problems, by countertenor Michael Maniaci.

Andrew Garland was a physically nimble, vocally agile Mercury. The messenger god and patron of thieves is ready to serve Jove, and eagerly props up his chief's tendency to project the gods' failings onto womankind, both human and divine. They have a delightfully robust duet to this effect in the second act.

Free of such cynicism — to a fault, perhaps — is the fervent woodland god Pan, convulsed by unrequited love for Diana, with whom he and his shaggy cohorts share the woods and meadows of Arcadia. Aaron Blake superbly invested his robust tenor and effectively over-the-top emotionalism in the role. He was seconded, much to Endymion's pain, by the vivid characterizations of Nathan Stark as the burly oaf Sylvano and Alisa Jordheim as the wily tease Satirino as the main satyrs.

The sexual confusion and ambivalence that pervades the story was furthered in the role of Linfea, an aging companion of Diana tired of her vow of chastity and ready to turn tail, as it were. She had a statuesque pathos in Thomas Michael Allen's performance that also encompassed just enough ridiculousness (much of it involving a banana).

Retribution for sexual wrongs is concentrated, as several Greek myths make clear, in the long-suffering Juno. In "La Calisto," the role is brief but spectacular; Alexandra Deshorties managed Mrs. Jove's virtuosic fury expertly, accompanied by her mute, shrouded furies — who carry out the ursine transformation of the hapless nymph Calisto.

Thursday's performance was conducted with exceptional sensitivity by David Bates. Accompanying ceaseless recitative and arioso securely with constantly moving singers must be a formidable challenge in putting across Baroque opera while incorporating contemporary standards of stagecraft. The orchestra was a smoothly working combination of Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra players and members of the Catacoustic Consort, a local early-music ensemble.

The ceaseless flow of sweet, stirring sound from the stage was unerringly linked to the great variety of instrumental subtlety from the Corbett Theater's pit. The result, linked to dramatic implausibilities that somehow hit home, was for the audience to be melodically amused and moved throughout.