La Calisto is a raging carnival of love and lust
Every so often, we wake from the tedious repetition of our lives and, for whatever reason, remember that we are at a cutting edge, world class institution. Every once in awhile, we become conscious of how proud we are to be Carnegie Mellon students. Well, I definitely had one such moment Saturday night at the School of Music’s production of La Calisto, an opera in two acts written by the Venetian composer Francesco Cavalli.
The problem with opera, Baroque opera in particular, for modern audiences, is how dated both the content and the style normally tends to be. How are we supposed to relate to a piece of music premiered in 1651? How are we supposed to be invested in the characters and enthralled by the plot, with the centuries of progress, war, and political and social upheaval that separate them from us? This is the challenge that all modern opera directors face: how to make us care.
With a cursory reading of the synopsis, we would find it hard to imagine that La Calisto was any different from the hundreds of other 17th century operas based on mythological characters. We have the same lusting gods, bashful nymphs, and vengeful goddesses. However, from the minute I entered the theater, I saw that this was not like all those other shows!
Entering the Alumni Concert Hall in the College of Fine Arts, my eyes fell on the giant scaffold that was to serve as a set. One of the biggest problems, I have found, with modern opera productions, is where they decide to set the action. Doing faithful period productions has almost completely gone out of fashion. Rather, directors are trying to transfer the familiar action of classic operas to new situations, and in the process, make us see them in a new light. This sounds fine, until you start having productions where the new setting makes absolutely no sense. To avoid this trap, La Calisto completely avoids the problem, by not making any overt references to locations or to time periods. The entire action of the opera occurs on a construction scaffold, with different parts of the scaffold being fluidly assigned to different “settings.” The costumes of the characters range from the traditional Roman robes of the nymph Calisto, to the tank top and cargo shorts of Mercurio, Jove’s servant, to the ripped tights, leather trenchcoat and painfully high stillettos of Juno. This lack of an explicit setting or time period helped the action of the opera to transcend geo-temporal boundaries in a way that really drove home the universality of its main theme: sex.
The opera opens with Destiny asking Nature and Eternity to immortalize the nymph Calisto in the heavens through a constellation. This segues into the story of Calisto, a devotee of Diana, goddess of chastity, who, through no doing of her own, catches the fancy of Jove, the king of the Gods. Even though she spurns his advances, he refuses to take the hint, resorting, with the help of his servant Mercurio, to trickery. Jove takes on the appearance of Diana and, in this new form, commands the love of Calisto. Meanwhile, Diana is in the middle of her own little love affair with a shepherd named Endimione, causing the wrath of the minor deity Pan who lusts for her. Pan’s henchman Satirino, a lascivious half goat half man, tries seducing Linfea, another one of Diana’s devotees, who in turn obstructs Endimione’s advances. This web of sexual energy woven on stage turns into barbed thicket with the entrance of a wrathful Juno with her whip bearing furies. Determined to punish her husband’s lover, she turns Calisto into a bear. However all is resolved when Jove decides to elevate Calisto to the heavens and immortalize her in the form of the constellation Ursa Major.
As you can see, this wild romp through the sexual underbelly of mythology can satisfy the appetite of today's audiences almost as well as it could back in the mid 17th century. In particular, the seduction of Calisto by Diana (actually Jove in disguise) was quite daring for its time, considering lesbians weren’t really accepted back then. On top of all of this, we also have the angelic early Baroque music of Cavalli, with its seamless transitions from the declamatory recitatives and the virtuosic arias. The singing was divine with the hardest runs executed almost effortlessly! The most memorable aspect however, was the acting. Whether it was the banter between Jove and Mercury, the wily cunning of Satirino, Endimione’s soulful laments or Juno’s peacock chatting with the orchestra, the opera was filled with tiny moments showing us that these weren’t cold mummies, dug up from the dusty tomb of a long forgotten score. Rather, these were living, breathing characters, whose every note was a manifestation of a deeper psychological phenomenon. The entire time I was sitting in the audience, I couldn’t help but be amazed at the intelligence, talent, and dedication that must have gone into the production. In particular, I had to constantly remind myself that the gods and goddesses, nymphs and furies on stage, they were also students. They also attended classes, took tests, went to parties, and complained about campus food. They reminded me how amazing Carnegie Mellon really is.