“Summertime… and the living is easy…” Gershwin did not compose that piece having me in mind, unfortunately! I can only wish that my summertime was easy. For a second year I am depraved of holidays; I have to organize my departure for the coming autumn; I have to juggle various issues at work, which become more surreal every day. At least, the relative peace and quiet that we have had for the past weeks is a small compensation to the fact that I cannot be enjoying cold mojitos on the beach. And it is precisely this peace that brings me back to the list. I will admit that I am very much out of practice. The words come out with extreme force lately, but that is the result of the burnout I am suffering from. Anyway, you didn’t come here to listen to me complaining, you came to be entertained and I promise you, I will do my best to accommodate even the toughest among you!
Moving – extremely slowly, I’ll admit – towards the top of the list, I realized that there is a lot of baroque opera in it; which would probably mean that I would have to change the title of the list to “My Top 10 baroque operas”, but I have already written about two (!) 19th century pieces, so that somewhat compensates for the lack of modernity in the list. And I can only promise that further down we will come across some later works. This being said, my number 7 is, surprise-surprise, from the baroque period…
SPOILER ALERT! ANY FURTHER READING YOU UNDERTAKE WITHOUT CHECKING OUT THE WORK FIRST, IS YOUR OWN MISTAKE! YOU HAVE BEEN DULY WARNED!
Among the students that Claudio Monteverdi had, was one guy named Francesco Cavalli. His surname creates some rather funny associations these days, what with Roberto Cavalli being a famous fashion designer. I know not whether the two are distant relatives, but if they are, I am not entirely convinced that the original Cavalli would disprove of Roberto. This assumption is based solely on Cavalli’s music and not any particular information from the composers’ life. Cavalli (Francesco, not the other one), is, without a doubt, Monteverdi’s most famous student today. And rightly so. His music is vibrant, at times pompous, exuberant, yet also deep and profound; I would go as far as calling it “witty” in the English 18th century meaning of the word. If Monteverdi – in his three surviving operas – presents a sincere and very well thought out version of mankind, Cavalli takes his master’s lessons to a new height, by perfectly balancing comedy and drama in one, never forgetting that he is still composing for a rather eclectic audience back in his day.
His opera “La Calisto” (I will stick with this spelling of the name throughout, and not use the “Callisto” version of the name, which however is closer to Greek original orthography, since the name essentially means “the most beautiful”) is the perfect example – and it happens to be one of my favorites too. Back then, when it first premiered, it was not well received. It ran for a very short time, landing an unfortunate spot in the list of genius compositions that were well ahead of their times. Thankfully, this brilliant piece has been rediscovered and brought to life once again.
The plot is, not surprisingly, rather packed and the number of people appearing on stage is that of 13! Quite an accomplishment! As is the norm, the plot is also inspired by a number of ancient Greek myths – with no twist. The way they myths are, is the way they are portrayed in the opera. The librettist, Giovanni Faustini, did not make any huge alterations to his original material, taken from Ovid. He simply used what already existed and added some comic relief in the secondary characters, as is tradition.
Essentially the beginning of the story makes reference to the devastating effects of Phaethon’s ride with the Valkyries… uhm, no, wrong mythology, it was the Chariot of the Sun he used, not Grane. Well, Phaethon has scorched the Earth with his inability to control the flaming chariot and Jove, accompanied by Mercurio, pays a visit to the troubled lands to bring life back to the joint. Of course, where Jove goes, trouble in the form of a love affair is soon to follow; and obviously that is the case here as well. Jove falls head over heels for Calisto, the daughter of Lycaon, that wretched king who served Jove his own son and was turned into a wolf to pay for it… Oh, isn’t Greek mythology just so uplifting and fun? Anyway, Calisto is a virgin (…) and she is an ardent follower of Diana, daughter of Jove and goddess of the hunt. Just how ardent a follower she is, becomes obvious to the audience very soon. Since Calisto does not want to part with her virginity, not even for the Father of the Gods, Jove necessarily turns to deceit and comes up with one, maybe even his best ever, disguise that results in a number of troubles. Jove assumes the appearance of his own daughter to seduce his object of desire and since there is nothing wrong with making out with your head goddess, Calisto succumbs (shouldn’t there be a law that forbids Jove to take up the forms of his own children? Never mind!) It is unclear how much of Diana’s appearance Jove truly takes, because Calisto ends up pregnant… Which begs the question of how in the name of Hades did Jove manage to do something like that, if there was no penetration involved!? Don’t you just love that? Of course, once the real Diana shows up and Calisto starts talking of their kisses and embraces and the gods know what else, the real Diana realizes that her follower has broken her [hymen]oath and sends her packing. Which, by the way, is a rather hypocritical reaction on her part, because she too is secretly in love with a mortal and should, in theory, understand her subjects’ predicament – at least she should have given it a little bit more thought! I mean, why would Calisto act like that, if there was no reason? Ah, well, it’s opera and clearly Diana does not care much that there is an impostor running around, impersonating her. Well, she should, because her little secret love affair is revealed that way to her daddy, who of course doesn’t care much, because he is who he is. Back to the plot then, Diana is caught in a desperate fight with her own emotions, because it is rather obvious she is in love with the shepherd Endymione. But she has to remain chaste, otherwise why send Calisto away if she is to have sex? At some point, of course, Giunone (Hera) has to appear as well, chasing her unfaithful husband. And in the end, the Queen of the Gods gets her way. Calisto is turned into a bear (eventually so is her son, but that is not significant here). Jove, who clearly doesn’t really care as to what happens to his mistresses after he has had his share with them, simply rectifies the fallen human by promising her a radiant position in the stars – and lo and behold, Ursa Major is born on the night sky! A lovely way to immortalize someone and at the same time a constant reminder to Giunone of her husbands’ infidelity. As for Diana and Endymione, after the latter is kidnapped by some ancient Greek lowlife that plays a secondary role in the opera, Diana rescues him and they mutually agree that their relationship needs to remain platonic, therefore Diana places him in an eternal sleep on a rock up in the mountains, so that every night, when making her rounds as the Moon, she can observe and kiss him, without ever turning the thing into something carnal.
That’s just about that for this particular opera. Sex, sex and only sex seems to be the subject matter. But, it is being served with such splendor and passion, that one can only sit back and enjoy. Also, this opera includes a number of issues that would reappear in the distant future, e. g. gender roles and associations in society and the importance of sex in relations, to name just a few.
The myth of Calisto, I would argue, is probably the first transgender myth in the western world [theoretically speaking, I suppose that researchers have already pointed something like this out, but I am not aware of any of those studies, so if anyone knows something, do let me know please!]. Granted, the homosexuality portrayed here is extremely complicated, since it is a male disguising himself as a female, but remains in essence a male, so questions of heterosexuality and homosexuality clearly arise. But this is also the quintessential matter that brings both comedy and drama to the stage and opens the way for the likes of Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal to do exactly the same some 4 centuries later! Also, immediately after revealing his true nature to Calisto (not the way he does with Semele, though), Jove is not portrayed as wanting more of her. The way he gives up to his wife, is the key to understanding this particular god. It is embarrassing for him to be seen as Diana of course, but once the disguise has served its purpose, the right order of things can finally return and Calisto has to pay for her beauty.
Another question arises then as well: Calisto is worshipping Diana – but how much of that worship changes into love, driven by sexual passion, after her encounter with Jove/Diana? And in the end, is she in love with Jove or are her emotions conflicted? There is no satisfactory answer to either question, in my opinion, but that is the beauty of it. Apparently, back in the ancient times, it was simply an honor to get laid by one of the gods, so what happened after, didn’t really matter. Also, what is extremely interesting is, how it is always the Gods at fault and never the mortals! It is Zeus who always finds a way to cheat on his wife and what happens to the – mostly married – victims of his passion is known to us very well. Yes, they might suffer for a while, but in the end, being the lover of a god, has its upside as well. For Calisto this meant a place in heaven, literally!
So, is this a comic opera? Yes and no. There are three parallel plots that have various degree of comedy in them and those intertwine throughout the opera. The first is the love affair between Calisto and Jove; the second between Diana and Endymione and the third the courtship of Linfea with said lowlife (Satirino, Pane and Sylvano). The names in parenthesis are the Three Stooges of the play and Linfea a spinster, who is a reluctant follower of Diana, in desperate need of base and filthy sex. The comedy that arises from the interactions of those four characters is legendary, because Linfea is conflicted as well about what it is she truly wants. The fact that she gives in at the end, simply verifies that sex rules! Those four are there to make the audience laugh, period. But the other two stories, the major ones, are a different thing altogether.
Jove’s affair with Calisto begins as something funny. Calisto’s rebuttals to Jove’s advances are comic. And Calisto’s approach to the real Diana also cause laughter; but up to a point. Because once Calisto is exiled from Diana’s group of followers and left alone, the scene changes into something very dramatic. This is a woman who, in the past, has lost her family (Lycaon and co.), then loses her chosen family through deceit, her lover and her child, all in one moment of weakness! Jove’s decision to render her immortal through the stars is a small compensation for all of that. And it does not really speak for a lieto fine.
As far as Diana’s affair with Endymione goes, well, that is completely sad, from beginning to end. The audience knows that the goddess cannot change who she is, not even for her one true love. She is, by Nature, a protector of virginity and a huntress; two roles that are rather conflicting in themselves. Diana’s almost hatred for men is notorious, but even she cannot hate every man. However, she cannot degrade herself by breaking her own code. The solution of the eternal sleep then is the only logical one she can choose: at the same time, this solution gives her the opportunity to be with her lover until the Twilight of the Gods – famously brought to them by either Xena, the Warrior Princess or Richard Wagner, take your pick!
In the end, what makes this opera so incredibly appealing to me, apart from the grand plot, is Cavalli’s music. It is his ability to portray both humor and pain in the same breath and his incredible sense of theatricality. His recitatives really move the action forward and their rhythm is also why the comic effects are so successful. Timing is everything and he masters it completely. As for the dramatic moments, they are never over the top; quite the contrary, they are served with sincerity and real affection towards the characters, an accomplishment very few composers of his time can claim any right to. It is not surprising to me that this opera was not well received back then. Both the libretto and the music are only wearing the mask of their times; but underneath it they break the boundaries of what was accepted back then in subtle ways, making it hard for his contemporaries to grasp the magnificence of this piece.
A quick note, right before I leave you and that has to do with staging the opera. I have seen three times (all within a year) the most splendid production of this opera in Munich. It was a production by David Alden, that is being picked up this season again and I can only tell you that I will be there, yet again, to witness it! Hopefully, the Bavarian State Opera will either live stream it for the rest of the world or decide to make a DVD of it, because it is a truly witty production that keeps the audience on the edge of their seats, successfully combining the comedy with the drama, while serving at the same time the music and the plot. High theater at its very best, which is a rarity these days…