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.