Teatro alla Scala 2020-21 Review: La Calisto

A Stunning Revival of a Rare Gem

By Robert Adelson & Jacqueline Letzter
(Credit: Brescia e Amisano, Teatro alla Scala)

In the last few years, Teatro alla Scala has committed to reviving masterpieces of the early Italian repertoire. On Oct. 30, 2021, the company presented, for the first time in its 243-year history, Francesco Cavalli’s (1602-1676) “La Calisto” (1651).

Of Cavalli’s 41 operas, “La Calisto” is the only one to have found a stable place in the standard repertoire. After its initial run at Venice’s Teatro Sant ‘Apollinare in 1651, the opera was not staged again until revived by Raymond Leppard at the 1970 Glyndebourne Festival. Though known to enthusiasts of early opera, traditional audiences, who are unfamiliar with the pace, subject, and music of 17th-century opera largely consider it an esoteric work.

The libretto by Giovanni Faustini (1615-1651) intertwines two classical myths: those of Calisto and Endymion. After Jupiter seduces the nymph Calisto using one of his many ruses, the goddess Diana violently ejects Calisto from the cohort of her nymphs for breaching her vows of chastity. The poor Calisto also suffers from the wrath of Jupiter’s jealous wife, Juno, who transforms her into a bear. Eventually, Calisto is redeemed when Jupiter transforms her into the Great Bear (Ursa Major) constellation, which shines eternally in the firmament.

The link between the myth of Endymion and the theme of the stars and the moon is Diana. The moon, an aspect of Diana’s, fascinates Endymion, a pastoral astronomer, and he admires the goddess every night through his telescope. This devotion moves the chaste Diana, but her vow forbids her to give in to her carnal desires. Like Calisto, Endymion suffers the consequences of his divine infatuation: he is tortured by the god Pan (also rejected by Diana) and his acolytes, the satyrs. Diana rescues the poor fellow but plunges him into eternal sleep so that she might visit him chastely every night.

Christophe Rousset’s Imaginative Performance Score

French harpsichordist and conductor Christophe Rousset was the musical mastermind behind this new production, serving not only as conductor but also the editor of the performance’s score. Rousset was well placed to introduce La Scala audiences to the work because it was his third time producing the show. Previous stagings occurred at Opéra national du Rhin in 2017, and Théâtre des Champs Elysées in 2010.

Rousset has experimented with various ways to provide modern audiences an opportunity to appreciate the work. In a La Scala-organized symposium devoted to “La Calisto,” (the event, in Italian, can be seen online), Rousset argued that there was much latitude for interpreting the work, musically and scenographically. This is because the extant manuscript from the original 1651 performances is frustratingly fragmentary and there is a dearth of information about the original staging.

As is often the case in Italian baroque opera, the score does not specify which instruments should be used, beyond the core of divided violins, violas, and bass strings. To better fill the vast acoustical space of La Scala, Rousset doubled the string parts by including musicians from his own ensemble Les Talens Lyriques who specialize in historical performance. To add color to the strings, Rousset added two recorders and two cornetti. The basso continuo group was particularly large, comprising three harpsichords—one played by Rousset himself—a regal (a type of reed organ), a lirone (a contrabass string instrument), three lutes doubling baroque guitars, and a baroque triple harp.

Rousset made liberal use of this rich palette of instrumental colors to support the dramatic situation. When the comedic “lower” characters, such as Satirino or Linfea, sang, the three lutenists switched to their guitars. These they played using the strumming chitarra battente technique typically used in popular music of the period. The harp or lutes accompanied the more noble characters, such as Giunone (Juno), Diana, or even Calisto.

Eschewing the possibly original practice of having Giove (Jupiter) impersonate Diana in a falsetto basso alla bastarda style, Rousset assigned the two taxing roles of Diana and Giove-as-Diana to the remarkably versatile Ukranian soprano Olga Bezsmertna. With macho swagger and facial expressions, Bezsmertna shifted effortlessly between these two characters, to the delight of the audience.

Some of Rousset’s casting choices broke with tradition. Cavalli wrote the part of the unhappy nymph Linfea for soprano voice, but it is often assigned to a tenor singing an octave lower—an effect analogous to that of the comedic role of the nurse Arnalta in Monteverdi’s “L’incoronazione di Poppea.” Rousset’s decision to have Linfea sung by soprano Chiara Amarù made for a less grotesque but still humorous interpretation.

Similarly, the part of Satirino, the lascivious adolescent, is often sung by countertenors, but Rousset cast the energetic soprano, Damiana Mizzi, adding to the already complex gender-bending dimensions of the opera.

More controversial were Rousset’s additions of instrumental works not found in Cavalli’s score. At the end of Act two ballet in Act two, Rousset used the overture to Cavalli’s “L’Orione” (1653), which nicely supported the mimed combat between nymphs and satyrs. To close the entire opera, Rousset added his orchestration of a passacaglia from Frescobaldi’s “Secondo libro di toccate” (1627).

The impressive cast showed a variety of vocal colors and approaches. The Israeli soprano Chen Reiss was a somewhat curious choice for the title role, as her baroque credentials are perhaps less established than those of Véronique Gens in the role of Giunone or Christophe Dumaux in the role of Endimione. Often such unexpected casting decisions turn out to be felicitous. Who can forget the moving Calisto of Ileana Cotrubas—better known for her Violetta—in the aforementioned 1970 Glyndebourne production? Such was the case regarding Reiss. Despite her consistent use of vibrato, her voice came across as more delicate than expected, and in the end, her subtle dynamic control brought out the multiple facets of the character.

The intensity of Gens’s vocal delivery was stirring, as was the versatility of Dumaux’s strong countertenor. The mischievous pair of Giove, sung by bass Luca Tittoto, and Mercurio, sung by tenor Markus Werba, made for an equally convincing set of lower voices.

David McVicar’s Starry Skies

Despite the tragic fate of Calisto and Endimione, there is plenty of humor and sexual innuendo in the libretto and also a surprisingly modern vindication of female sexual pleasure. But stage director David McVicar and set designer Charles Edwards foreground the opera’s political and philosophical positions regarding 17th-century scientific revolution, particularly in astronomy. This emphasis is understandable, for the opera was created just a few decades after Galileo’s condemnation by the Vatican. In the more liberal republic of Venice with its many scientific societies, there would have been outrage about Galileo’s fate, an outrage translated by Faustini in the character of Endimione. Even further, the prologue’s characters, Natura (John Tessier, doubling as Pane), Destino (Svetlina Stoyanova), and Eternità (Federica Guida), discuss the soul’s journey from earth to heaven, are Venetian scientists.

The set, an astronomical observatory with a telescope pointed at the Great Bear, changes little in the three acts. The costumes are inspired by 17th-century painting, with some surprising discrepancies, such as Endimione’s sneakers.

The audience—remarkably young for an opening night—responded enthusiastically to this excellent performance, though, regrettably, many empty seats were seen in the hall. Was this because of the public’s lack of familiarity with Cavalli? Or their difficulty in appreciating opera mostly set in a free recitar cantando, without clearly demarcated arias to get one’s bearings? A more likely explanation might be the relatively recent decision of the Italian government to allow theaters to operate at full capacity and the resulting difficulty of quickly filling the unsold seats.

Whatever the reason, one can hope that future revivals of little-known gems from the first century of Italian opera will receive as stimulating performances as the new Rousset/ McVicar “Calisto.”


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