Lecherous Gods, Satyrs Chase Nymphs in Paris ‘La Calisto’

Sophie Karthauser
Sophie Karthauser plays the title role in the Francesco Cavalli opera "La Calisto" in Paris. A production of the Theatre des Champs-Elysees, the play runs through May 14, 2010. Photographer: Alvaro Yanez/Theatre des Champs-Elysees via Bloomberg

John Fitzgerald Kennedy and Francois Mitterrand didn’t bother to hide their identity when they were having yet another extramarital affair. Au contraire, their sex appeal was enhanced by their status.

In antiquity, the mating game was more complex. Jove, the CEO of the Greek pantheon and a notorious lecher, had to disguise himself as Diana, the virgin goddess of the hunt, before the nymph Calisto succumbed to his charms.

Calisto is the heroine of Pier Francesco Cavalli’s eponymous 1651 opera, the latest production at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees in Paris. It makes for an amusing, if morally contestable evening.

Cavalli (1602-76) was a pupil of Claudio Monteverdi and eventually inherited his teacher’s job as maestro di cappella at St. Mark’s in Venice. While most of Monteverdi’s operas are lost, more than two dozen of Cavalli’s scores have survived.

When Cavalli started writing for the stage, opera was no longer what it had been at the beginning -- a noble diversion for an aristocratic elite.

In 1651, Venice had six opera houses and a middle-class public knowledgeable enough to appreciate mythological plots yet also fond of lighter fare, not excluding bawdy double-entendres. What mattered most was that the story finished with a “lieto fine,” a happy end.

Obsessed Satyr

“La Calisto,” though quickly shelved after the premiere, fits the formula. Based on Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,” it mixes four love affairs, each more frustrating than the other: Jove lusting after Calisto; the shepherd Endymion yearning for Diana who is also desired by Pan, the god of the forest; and a young satyr obsessed with Linfea, another nymph.

The young satyr sums up the general mess: “Pazzi quei ch’in amor credono.” (Only madmen believe in love.)

In the end, Calisto whom Juno, Jove’s jealous wife, has turned into a bear, ascends to the heavens as the Great Bear, the constellation Ursa Major.

“La Calisto” was forgotten for more than three centuries. It was revived in 1970 at the Glyndebourne Festival by the conductor Raymond Leppard whose unashamedly romantic orchestration delighted the audience and horrified purists.

Christophe Rousset, who conducts Les Talens Lyriques, his “historically informed” chamber orchestra, stays close to the original, though not slavishly: He has doubled the number of instruments that were used at the 1651 premiere.

Surreal Landscape

Masha Makeieff, the director, set and costume designer, has transplanted the story from ancient Greece into a surrealist no-man’s-land with a starry sky in the background and a landscape of cubes, rocks and other strange objects.

The goddesses appear in evening dress, their male counterparts in various kinds of leisurewear. The satyrs are stripped to the waist and sport long tails.

It’s all great fun, even if I couldn’t help feeling that a less eclectic style would have been more effective.

The strong cast is dominated, as it should be, by the two chief gods, Giovanni Battista Parodi’s cynical Jove and Veronique Gens’s shrewish Juno. Parodi is hilarious in drag when he pushes his warm bass voice up into the falsetto range.

Sophie Karthauser is an endearing Calisto, Sabina Puertolas a clear-voiced little satyr and Milena Storti a droll Linfea, the nymph who is fed up with her virginity. Even those who don’t care for countertenors will appreciate Lawrence Zazzo’s stylish Endymion.

Rating: ***.

“La Calisto” runs through May 14. Information: http://www.theatrechampselysees.fr or +33-1-4952-5050.

(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

What the Stars Mean:
****          Outstanding
***           Good
**            Average
*             Poor
(No stars)    Worthless
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