GENEVA (Reuters) - A new production in Geneva of one of the earliest operas, La Calisto, camps up the lewd tale of cross-dressing gods while remaining faithful to the authentic sound of early music.
The opera, first performed in 1651, tells how the king of the gods, Jove, disguises himself as Diana, goddess of chastity and hunting, to seduce one of her beautiful nymphs, Calisto.
In the production by German director Philipp Himmelmann that opened on Tuesday, the acting is camp, costumes are ornate and there is a general sense of excess — in a word, it is baroque.
In the opening prologue, Nature, Eternity and Destiny appear as chubby Renaissance cherubs, waddling around the stage like the Teletubbies. Jove’s cynical companion and adviser Mercury looks like a Goth out of the Rocky Horror Picture Show.
Besides Jove’s ruse — which requires the bass singer to switch to falsetto when in disguise — the opera provides plenty of opportunities for sexual confusion.
Diana herself is admired by a shepherd, Endymion, a role written for castrato, and here sung by American counter-tenor Bejun Mehta. Jove is forced to beat a hasty retreat when Endymion comes across him in disguise and starts to woo him.
Another of Diana’s followers, the aging nymph Linfea, yearns for a husband to taste the joys of love but is sung by a tenor while pursued by a randy little satyr played by a mezzo-soprano.
All this hanky panky among the gods might suggest La Calisto is a farcical ancestor of one of Offenbach operettas.
But the lewdness of the action — emphasized in Himmelmann’s production with crude and explicit sexual gestures — sits alongside music of timeless beauty.
Himmelmann sees the opera as the story of a deceived and abused woman, depicting situations of jealousy, anger, desire and betrayal familiar to everyone.
“All the characters are alone at the end, when the eroticism has passed and only feelings are left,” he told Swiss newspaper Tribune de Geneve.
The new production of the baroque jewel — performed in a former pumping station where the River Rhone flows out of Lake Geneva — testifies to the versatility of the Swiss city’s opera company.
In recent months it has also put on one of the masterpieces of the 20th century, Alban Berg’s Lulu, and Richard Wagner’s titanic sacred drama Parsifal.
For the composer Pier Francesco Cavalli, tragedy and comedy could fit seamlessly inside the same work, just as in the dramas of Shakespeare.
Cavalli, who lived from 1602 to 1676, was the greatest opera composer of his age, spending his career in Venice.
He virtually created the aria — the central solo in opera — and one of the joys of La Calisto is to observe the young art form taking shape.
Cavalli was writing for the new public theatres in Venice rather than for the courts of princes that commissioned the first operas in the late 16th and early 17th centuries.
That meant big doses of sex, violence and humor to pull in the audience.
It also allowed stories that poked fun at the established order, ridiculing rather than glorifying the gods.
And in practical terms it meant small-scale orchestras — whose composition can be seen in the surviving theater accounts — rather than lavish court productions.
The mixture of tragedy and comedy went out of fashion at the time of Cavalli’s death, and his operas were forgotten. La Calisto was revived only in 1970 after a gap of more than 300 years, as part of the broader rediscovery of baroque opera.
The music can be reconstructed from Cavalli’s manuscript, which lays down the outlines of the music and relies on the musicians to improvise ornamentation and detail.
The Geneva production drops the exquisite, fading chorus that closed the 1970 revival, in which Calisto, transformed into the constellation Ursa Major, rises to the heavens. Instead it closes with a haunting duet about love sung by Diana and Endymion — ethereal music arching across the centuries.
Editing by Paul Casciato