Francesco Cavalli's La Calisto, the first of the three full-length opera productions for the eighteenth season of the Bay Area Summer Opera Theater Institute (BASOTI), received its first of four performances last night in the San Francisco Conservatory of Music Recital Hall. In Aristotelian terms the opera was originally conceived with a priority for spectacle and was first presented (on November 28, 1651) at the Teatro San Apollinare in Venice, which was equipped with complex stage machinery. In other words this was conceived to draw large audiences with elaborate special effects. Sound familiar? Unfortunately, it only ran eleven performances, attracting about 1200 patrons to Francesco Cavalli (from his Wikipedia entry) a theater designed to hold 400. Those numbers are about as cruel as the ones that confront most Hollywood producers at the end of a film's first weekend run.
The Conservatory Recital Hall is a far more modest space that was not built with stage machinery in mind. However, as a result of Raymond Leppard's efforts to revive the work (including editing the score), the focus of attention has shifted from spectacle to comedy; but the comedy is very much in the spirit of the opera's seventeenth-century origins. Here again, in the spirit of the Renaissance, we may appeal to Aristotle's characterization of comedy. "Poetics" distinguishes comedy from tragedy on the grounds that (in Leon Golden's translation) "the former takes as its goal the representation of men as worse, the latter as better, than the norm." In other words, the distinction is not about laughter or tears, nor is it about marriage or death. Comedy is about our inclination towards baser, rather than nobler, instincts.
From this point of view, the comedic nature of La Calisto is immediately apparent from its source, the second book of Ovid's Metamorphoses. Base behavior abounds in Ovid's retelling of the Greek myths; and that behavior is just as evident (if not more so) among the Olympian deities as among the mere mortals. Indeed, librettist Giovanni Faustini provided a text that extends beyond the basic tale of Jupiter deflowering a chaste follower of Diana and Juno's subsequent revenge to a wider complex of subplots in which noble values are undone by passion. Thus Diana herself succumbs to Endimione (Endymion); and her follower Linfea (a woman of decidedly Italian, rather than Greek, origins, sung by a tenor in drag, following the Renaissance practice of depicting plain women with the reedy voice of a tenor) ends up seduced by a satyr.
Yefim Maizel, Artistic Director of BASOTI, chose to stage this opera in modern dress, thus allowing us to appreciate all of this base behavior in terms of contemporary standards, rather than those of seventeenth-century Venice. He was never afraid to take this behavior over the top, and the delight of this production is that every one of his BASOTI students followed him enthusiastically. (This opera will be performed three more times, tonight and tomorrow evenings and on Sunday afternoon. Each of the four performances has its own unique cast, so I shall not focus on any individual performers in this account.) Furthermore, Maizel discovered innovative ways to work with the limited facilities of the Recital Hall; so, while the "original intent" of spectacle may have been sacrificed, there was no shortage of "theater magic" events to reinforce the flow of the plot.
Another limitation involved the size of the orchestra pit. Conductor Jun Nakabayashi prepared his own performing version, based on Leppard's edition of the score, requiring only a string quartet and electric keyboard to provide continuo with sonorities of harpsichord, lute, and harp consistent with the dramatic setting. Nakabayashi provided a lively forward-moving pace that was entirely consistent with Maizel's sense of comedic timing, and most effective was the way in which he achieved a seamless flow between recitative and aria passages. Cavalli certainly had a command of the formal structures of his time, but the priority of this production was to ensure that structure would serve the flow of action, rather than interrupt it. In La Calisto Maizel made an excellent choice for introducing the efforts of the BASOTI students to the general public.
—Stephen Smoliar - SF Classical Music Examiner