Cavalli – La Calisto / Bayo, Lippi, Pushee et al. / Theatre Royal de la Monnaie, Brussels 1996 (1)

I had a moment of confusion watching this, because while it was released in 2006, it was filmed in 1996 – the ten year discrepancy caused me to sit there scratching my head during the first minute or so of Act I wondering, “wait, how old is Maria Bayo?”

But that is not really important. (If anyone cares, I think she was about 35 in 1996.) This is an opera about a girl who has a fling with a gender-bending Zeus and gets turned into a bear. Those crazy Greeks!

Briefly, the story is thus: Calisto, a nymph and follower of Diana, catches the eye of Zeus. Unable to seduce her in his Zeusy form, he disguises himself as Diana – the extent of the disguise is never quite made clear – and for whatever reason, this works (then again, I always kind of suspected that there was more than one subscriber to the Sapphic Bulletin among the followers of Diana – but hey, whatever.) But Juno finds out and punishes Calisto by turning her into a bear. Then Zeus turns her into a constellation, and I guess this solves everyone’s problems.

This production would have been recognizable to the opera’s original seventeenth-century audience. There is no complicated stagecraft here. The stage is a simple wooden floor, surrounded by what I can only describe as a big blue box on which are painted images of the constellations. The gods make their entrances through hatches on the sides, or via being lowered down, old-school style on platforms, from above. There are also a lot of other hatches on the floor for entrances and exits and the raising and lowering of various small items, such as a telescope – of which more later. Costumes are of a piece with this. The goddesses have dresses with big panniers, the randy nymph Linfea gets a sort of Shakespearian-era ‘I’m a man in a dress’ dress (the character is sung by a man) and the male characters are adorned in various commedia dell’arte costumes with masks.

The general mood of the thing would also have been recognizable to the opera’s original audience – the opera’s more serious moments are not really very serious, the characters are very stock, the humor is consistently broad (enough that it becomes a little boring now and then) and one definitely comes away with the impression that this is a ‘spectacle’ to entertain and divert rather than a work intended to move the audience deeply the whole way through. There’s enough cross-dressing and dick jokes here to power a small frathouse. I don’t mind, because none of it seems out of place, but Tristan und Isolde this is not.

There is some very pretty music in it, though.

(Next section here.)

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