La Calisto I Cincinnati Opera
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In Review > North America

La Calisto

Cincinnati Opera

In Review Cincinnati Calisto lg 1014
Garland and Okulitch in La Calisto at Cincinnati Opera
© Philip Groshong 2014


Cincinnati Opera made its first excursion into Baroque opera with Francesco Cavalli’s La Calisto (1651), using a performing edition prepared by Philippe Grisvard and employing a small orchestra comprised of the Catacoustic Consort (a Cincinnati-based early music group) and members of the Cincinnati Symphony, about twenty players in all. Condensed to two acts and a playing time of less than two hours, this realization of Cavalli’s skeletal score was a model of economy and imagination. A small group of strings allowed for transparency, with a rich group of continuo instruments supporting conversational moments and percussion adding the occasional exotic touch. Cavalli’s approach seems remarkably in line with today’s music theater, though perhaps it is more accurate to say that composers are returning to the fluid style of the seventeenth century, moving easily from sung speech to arioso and back. In any event, as heard on July 25, the 360-year-old opera was a complete delight — fresh, funny, sometimes bawdy, and often deeply touching. 

Presented in the 750-seat Corbett Theater of the School for Creative and Performing Arts, the production was splendid. It employed the set that David Centers designed for Philip Glass’s Galileo Galilei last season: wooden staircases with connecting walkways proved a versatile playing space, providing a vantage point for characters to observe action and thus helping keep the sometimes complex action clear. Ted Huffman’s direction made it easy to keep up with the many disguises and mistaken identities that advance the plot, and it was unfailingly inventive and often uproariously funny. The same can be said of Zack Winokur’s choreography, with special praise to the men of the Cincinnati Ballet who carried it out, playing both Diana’s fleet-footed followers and lusty satyrs. (Their eventual battle was hilarious.) Rebecca Senske’s costumes wittily mixed contemporary elements with classical styles. 

Without exception, the opera was strongly cast. Nathalie Paulin was moving as the innocent nymph Calisto, singing with great purity and flexibility. Some of the loveliest moments of the score — beginning with her opening lament over the destroyed natural environment — belong to Calisto, and she sang them all beautifully. Paulin was sensitive to the comedy as well, never playing her confusion for laughs and being all the funnier for it. As her would-be lover Jove, Daniel Okulitch was superb, as both singer and actor. His resonant bass-baritone made Jove’s opening pronouncements suitably majestic, and when he appeared in disguise as Diana, his falsetto was both powerful and attractive. An adept comedian, he was genuinely amusing in drag, simultaneously projecting bravado and discomfort, and the producer made good use of his height, as the pretended Diana towered over many of the others onstage. 

As Mercury, Andrew Garland was outstanding. Physically, he was ideal for the role (and for his abbreviated costume), not only moving swiftly as Jove’s messenger should but expressing great tenderness for the transformed Calisto, who is finally entrusted to his care. And he sang extremely well. His voice is rich and surprisingly flexible, including a remarkably good trill. The role of Endymion, beloved of Diana, was taken by countertenor Michael Maniaci, making his Cincinnati Opera debut. Endymion’s music is a series of lovelorn declarations, but Maniaci made the most of them, with exquisite tone and beautifully controlled singing. 

As Linfea, the aging nymph rethinking her vow of chastity, tenor Thomas Michael Allen was also making his company debut. It was a great success. A full head taller than his fellow (male) nymphs, he showed himself to be a gifted physical comedian, bringing down the house in his interactions with Satirino, played by the diminutive Alisa Jordheim, and especially in the monologue in which Linfea resolves to find herself a man. Additionally, Linfea’s music was honestly sung throughout, without fudging or cheating. 

Jennifer Johnson Cano, also in her Cincinnati Opera debut, made a strong impression as Diana. Her voice is pure and steady, a rather dark mezzo with a good deal of flexibility. She handled the comedy and serious moments of her role with equal aplomb. As her fellow goddess Juno, Alexandra Deshorties did not appear until the beginning of Act II, but she commanded the stage then and whenever she returned. She has been moving into more substantial roles, but everything was kept to scale, her voice matching the others in steadiness and flexibility. And she looked stunning in her strapless gold lamé top.

The satyrs were uniformly excellent. Jordheim’s lusty Satirino was voiced in a clear, pure soprano that carried wonderfully in the house. Like the others, she was adept in ornamentation and a gifted stage comedian as well. Pan was sung by Aaron Blake, previously heard in Cincinnati as an elegant, restrained Don Ottavio. As the love-sick Pan, though, he poured on the emotion verismo-style, rather like a Baroque Canio, to great effect. As Sylvano, Nathan Stark had less to do but sang robustly and acted well, contributing some amusingly ribald moments. 

The musical direction and instrumental playing were a constant source of delight. Making his U.S. debut, David Bates led a propulsive performance that never lacked sensitivity or flexibility. Period and modern instruments blended seamlessly. The rapport between the singers onstage and the instrumentalists in the pit was evident, as was their sheer pleasure in presenting this wonderful work. This production demonstrated the viability of early opera when presented in a suitable venue with the requisite careful preparation and committed execution. It would be wonderful to see La Calisto become the first in a continuing series of such works presented at Cincinnati Opera. spacer 




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