Cher Public

Sexual perversity in Gowanus

It is a thousand pities Francesco Cavalli never saw Some Like It Hot. A tale of convoluted romances, cross-dressing, immoral moralizing and a divine diva would have been right up his alley, or rather, Venetian canal. As staged by Vertical Players Repertory in a back alley around the corner from the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn’s Red Hook (which smells on a hot summer night not unlike the Venetian canals), Cavalli’s La Callisto has just as much unlikely conniving, canoodling and incantatory vocalizing as Billy Wilder’s classic film. All it lacks is gangsters, and the army of lust-mad satyrs may be taken as standing in for George Raft. Cavalli’s music is rather better. 

The story of the opera, for once, is starrier than the cast: Jupiter wants to seduce a virgin huntress attendant on prudish Diana. He can only succeed by taking the form of something the girl, Callisto, already adores—Diana herself. That leads to complications, when Diana’s real boyfriend, a sleepy astronomer named Endymion, shows up, and then Diana herself, who is confused by Callisto’s attempts to “renew” their amours.

The arrival of Juno in the second act is bad news for everyone (except us), but we must also deal with Pan and his satyrs leaping into orgies crying, “Me, too!” in arias whose raunchy double-meanings audiences are unlikely to miss. As the same soprano plays Diana and faux-Diana (with Jupiter’s back-slapping mannerisms), she enjoys rather a workout. This being a mythical show, it should be no surprise that the heroine is turned first of all into a bear (before our very eyes!) and then into a constellation, mounting four staircases of fire escape to the heavens.

VPR, you may remember, is the company that staged Il Tabarro on an actual barge and A View from the Bridge in a room roughly the size of a cramped Red Hook apartment. This outdoors Callisto (which continues Thursday and Saturday nights) is hampered by passing motorcycles, helicopters, buzzing air conditioning units and big beat down the block, not all of which is properly synchronized with the expert five-piece baroque ensemble under Jennifer Peterson. Sets consist of a huge bed, the fire escape and a lot of exposed brick. (My date was reminded of the open-air theater in the bombed-out cathedral on Ischia.)

The stage is not elevated and the voices are not huge, so you are advised to come early and grab seats in the first six or seven rows. There are no “titles,” but the singers’ diction is so good (and their miming skills so buff) that if you know your mythology and any opera clichés at all you’ll have no trouble following the story, and the characters are so scantily clad that you’ll usually know which gender (and species) they are at any given moment. Fluttering blue fans means they are peacocks; antlers on heads signify deer; blue skin and spiky punked hair means … uh … well, you want to hear about the music, right?

Cavalli was the first Venetian opera composer (mid-seventeenth century, protégé of Monteverdi) whose operas became famous outside Venice—as far off, indeed, as Paris, where he won a commission from Louis XIV that set jealous Lully off on his operatic career. Such familiar items as the da capo aria, in which the singer takes center stage and warbles for fifteen minutes, slowing the action for modern audiences, did not yet exist. Neither, by and large, did choruses or concerted numbers where several characters sing contrasting music at once to comment on the awkward situation the story has reached.

Instead, in Cavalli, there is constant tuneful and dramatic activity, the whole text being set to charming, very personal music. Each of the many characters in turn (there are no Cavalli operas with small casts) not only participates in the action but confides in us her or his cynical or yearning thoughts about love, fate, the joys of sex and the miseries of marriage or politics or poverty.

There are songs inset in the action as soliloquies or duets but it is the vivid style of sung utterance that hurries matters along and makes these operas seem very modern, almost cinematic. Modern opera composers should take Cavalli not Puccini or Verdi as their model if they seek broad appeal—but they must compose for the voice and the ear to give as much pleasure as Cavalli provides. That’s not easy.

The VPR singers tend to small voices, which is fine for such conversational opera but difficult when combating New York night noises. I spent the first act in the last row and sound was tinny, nuance vague. Later acts in the fourth row made more sense.

The company’s star is tiny, curly-wigged maned Marcy Richardson in the plum roles of Diana and faux-Diana. Her small but luscious soprano acquired sensuous overtones for her duet with the persistent Endymion, then abruptly hissed at Callisto’s advances. She had fun slapping Mercury’s back as Jove-in-disguise, and seduced both sexes with convincing ardor. (Tony Curtis? This is how it’s done!)

Holly Gash drew the title role, and her mellow sounds won our pity for her unprecedented plight and ursine fate. Her duet with the basso Jove of Matthew Curran was perhaps the happiest vocal moment of the night, though Richardson’s duet with Endymion, Hayden De Witt, wasn’t far behind in sensuous pleasure. De Witt’s voice is puzzling, sometimes elated and instrumental, other times quite prosaic and flat (in the sense of lacking character).

Judith Barnes reveled in the malice of misunderstood Juno. Aram Tchobanian (running cards in “Niagara Falls” to imply Mercury’s tricksiness) was a bright-voiced commentator. Joseph Hill, a flutey countertenor, ably sang and enacted an eternally horny Satyr, Nicholas Tamagna, a more robust alto countertenor, sang blue-skinned Pan, and Nathan Baer was most impressive as Silvano, god of the forest, uttering mellifluous basso-isms as he carried annoying nymphs off over his shoulder. (They do get in the way for us woodsy types.)

Toby Newman sang a virginal huntress who admits, in private (i.e. just to us), that she isn’t turned off by sex; her voice went a notch or two into “torch” as she began to feature the notion. But that’s Cavalli: Those who deny they’re thinking about sex are the butt of his jokes, and only the cynical are still laughing in the end. Becoming a constellation is not a solution available to most of us; Cavalli suggests, therefore, that we gather rosebuds on earth.

The music of the five-instrument ensemble, mostly strings (even the theorbo!), did fill the courtyard even when the cycles were zooming by. Judith Barnes’s direction clued us to every flirtation and confusion and was full of witty touches to warm a classicist’s heart—though I did wonder how threatening a bow could be when they were always being aimed without arrows. If you know a bit of mythology, you’re ahead of the game, but the clever VPR players render detailed advance knowledge unnecessary.

Photos by Joseph Henry Ritter.

Top: Nathan Baer as Silvano, Hayden DeWitt as Endimione, Joseph Hill as Satirino and Nicholas Tamagna as Pane.

Center: Marcy Richardson as Diana; Chitra Raghavan and Allegra Durante as Sacred Stags.

  • Great review, it sounds delightful. This is one of my favourite early operas. I saw it at Glyndebourne in 1970 with Janet Baker as the two Dianas, Ileana Cortubas as Calisto, Hughes Cuenod as the horny old nymph and a bare breasted Janet Hughes as her seducer and randy little saytr. It was one of the more memorable performances in my years of opera going.

    I was surprised to find this clip on YouTube:

    Dame Janet as Jupiter disguised seduced the more than willing Calisto.

    I only wish this were available commercially.

    • Camille

      What lovely sounding music. And the review says there is not much da capo development, if at all. Good, because da capo always gets on my jock strap.

      Reeling in shocked amazement to see Dame Granite acting girlishly flirtatious and coquettish. I did not know The Queen allowed that sort of display of nonsense in a good Briton.

      Thank you for finding this an posting it, willym.

      • It was an amazing performance both from Dame Janet and the rest of the cast: James Bowman, Owen Brannigan, Teresa Kubiak. I just wish I could find the complete broadcast.

        I was amused by your Dame Granite nickname as I never thought of her that way. I saw her Dido at Aix, the ROH Vitella twice, the ENO Werther and the Calisto and she was riveting in the first three and an accomplished comedienne in the last. Her Jupiter in drag was a tour de force and you could tell the moment she walked on which Diana you were seeing -- the lovesick Goddess or the God en travesti.

        • Camille

          Salve, caro willym--

          That is a very interesting observation to me.
          As I never had the opportunity to hear her in opera I had no idea what she did do.

          I was, however, lucky enough to hear her in recital with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and my beloved Maestro Giulini conducting her, in two performances of Berlioz’ Les Nuits d’Ete (1980 or ’81). I was not particularly keen on going but had been given a comp ticket, so I did. Well, I was just so thrilled with what this woman accomplished in recital — not at all stiff or boring, but intense and even erotic to a certain extent, to my eternal shock. I was left flabbergasted as she was nothing like the stiff I had been led to believe she was purported to be from the publicity I’d seen. Anyway, I asked for another ticket and saw the next performance, just to make sure. Same level of great artistry, but genuinely produced and not as by remote control. Makes the short list of the Camille Great Artists in Performance Awards.

          Oh, and “Dame Granite” I have appropriated from a great musical wag I once knew. Not my own.

          Willym, is it true you are leaving Bella Roma? How can you? I hope it is a step forward for you, at least! At least you will be escaping quer bastardo Berlusconi chi ci ha fregato, tuttiquanti!!

          Tante cose belle
          Signora delle camellie

          • Cara Camille
            Sadly yes I will be leaving on Sunday -- two daschies in tow -- to return to Canada. Its been an incredible 4 years but I knew it would come to an end. I’ve done many addios in my life but this is the most difficult in so many ways. For all its problems Italy is still one of the most wonderful places I’ve lived in -- the food, the people, the places, the art, the opera … tutti but I think mostly the people.

            When I was ten years old -- back in the middle of the last century I sat down with a copy of Opera News where they were announcing the upcoming seasons in Italy and showed my father all the opera houses I’d go to. It took fifty-odd years but with the exception of the Teatro Massimo Bellini I did them all. Mission accomplished Papa!

          • Camille

            Caro willym—

            I commiserate with you.

            If ever you need a shoulder to cry on about Roma bella, be sure to write. Incidentally, I greatly enjoyed your travelogue to Catania, whereto I have also made the pilgrimage. It was closed, off season, but I still conserve the photo of younger Camille standing in front of the Teatro Bellini. There is, do you know, a Via Giuseppe di Stefano very nearby the theatre. I deplored that alley way as a suitable venue for the name of Maria Callas!!

            You are right about this beautiful edition of Calisto and oh so lucky to have seen it!

            With great sympathy and buon viaggio!!


      • tannengrin

        this La Baker as the ‘real’ Diana. I’m with Willym, I love this recording.

        • Batty Masetto

          It was this aria -- only on disk, unfortunately, not in the house -- that completely changed my mind about La Baker -- my aha! moment similar to Camille’s at Les Nuits d’été. (I think she must have been traveling the West Coast doing the Berlioz that season, Camille. I heard her with the SF Symphony and lapped it up as you did.)

          The recording captures a generosity of tone here that she had live but that didn’t always come through on records. If I’m not mistaken, the performance originally came out on L’Oiseau-lyre. Did they have some kind of special engineering magic that others lacked?

          • Oh my god Batty you have just had me in tears with this. This has been one of those moments that stayed in my memory since first seeing this wonderful production. At the time the purists attacked Leppard for his “historically” incorrect edition -- including interpolating this aria (I believe originally a duet) from Cavalli’s Artemisia. His defense at the time was basically that he had created the edition for the singers that had been engaged. It turned it into a real piece-de-occasion tailored to the incredible cast Glyndebourne had engaged. The Hall-Bury production was pure magic and when the recording came out -- and I believe it was L’Oiseau-lyre -- I played it to death. They also captured an intense performance of Hippolyte et Arice with Baker as the Phaedra.

            1000 grazie for finding and uploading this!


          • Batty Masetto

            Willym, you need to thank Tannengrin for the clip -- I just commented, but I totally share your rapture.

        • Damn sorry Tannengrin I hadn’t realized it was you that posted this. 1000 grazie I won’t bore you by reposting what I wrote to Batty below. Baci di Roma

  • Camille

    Grabbing my citronella wipes (thanks lorenzo.venezia!!) and going to this one.

    Thanks, John, as always a lovely and intelligent review from you.

  • brooklynpunk

    Very very nice write-up, John…thanks!

  • Ilka Saro

    What a treat this opera is! And the review is spot on. The production is wonderful and the cast is superb.

    Interesting clip (above) with Janet Baker as Giunone. I am a little surprised, only because the role is practically all recit. Lots of high dudgeon recit but only one aria. I guess it was luxury casting.

  • lorenzo.venezia

    TodOpera has three Callistos for download. I’ll have to try one out!!

    • Lorenzo, I’ve never encountered todoperaweb before. They have 97 Giocondas and (even better!) I Lituani and Marion Delorme! (which I’ve never heard)

      But how does it work? Do I register? What do I do in order to HEAR these things?

      • operalover9001

        Even better. You can download all those performances, but make sure you buy a portable hard drive first. All the operas are links to a rapidshare file, which is great.

  • I’ve posted this clip a couple of times, though for reasons I now cannot remember. I adore this opera, and its lesbian overtones, ya know.

  • OperaGaga

    Greetings, I felt the great need to clarify that that’s not a wig, that’s the actual hair growing out of my head! I know it’s hard to believe it is NOT my natural color. Just had to set the record uh…straight….and thanks for writing us up!

  • Nelly Melbacioiu

    Oh now I am truly wretched that inclement weather on the planned opening night deprived me of a chance to see this. I had the good fortune to see an excellent student performance of L’Egisto in Boston a few years back (NEC at the Cutler Majestic) and have wanted to see more since.