Chicago Opera Review: LA CALISTO (Haymarket Opera)

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by Barnaby Hughes on May 8, 2016

in Theater-Chicago


It’s not often that one gets to see the same opera twice, especially when the opera in question is a delightful rarity like Francesco Cavalli’s La Calisto, which debuted in 1651 and remained unperformed for more than three centuries. Fortunately, La Calisto’s popularity is growing; and after seeing Haymarket Opera Company’s production, it is easy to see why. The music is disarmingly simple, consisting mostly of melodic recitative whose ornamentation is not overwrought. And the orchestra is small, comprising two violins, cello, harpsichord and theorbo.


The story, however, is rather more complex, somewhat Shakespearean, boasting divine and human characters, disguised identity, and pairs of mixed-up lovers. When Giove sees the beautiful nymph Calisto, he determines to seduce her. Since Calisto is chastely devoted to Diana, Giove takes the goddess’ form and wins Calisto’s affections. In parallel, the real Diana falls for the shepherdess Endimione. When each human lover meets the wrong Diana, confusion and heartbreak ensues. The plot soon thickens when Giunone and Pane show up. The satyr is also in love with Diana, and he proceeds to tie up his rival Endimione. Giunone turns Calisto into a bear, hoping that her husband Giove will return to her.

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Whereas some productions, including one I previously reviewed, cast Giove and the disguised Diana as the same person, Haymarket casts one singer in the role of both Dianas. Thus, instead of a man singing falsetto and cross-dressing, there is a woman attempting to act like a man playing a woman. According to musicologist Jennifer Williams Brown, this is how the original 1651 production was cast. Director Sarah Edgar tries to differentiate the two Dianas by having Angela Young Smucker play Giove/Diana ultra-feminine, drag queen-like. This strategy doesn’t quite succeed, however; perhaps it is too subtle. I found the verbal queues in the libretto far more illuminating.

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Haymarket’s devotion to historical accuracy usually informs every artistic choice, from the costumes and staging to the casting and orchestra, as we have seen with the casting of Diana and Giove. This is why I was disappointed by the female casting of Endimione, which was originally written for an alto castrato and later adapted for a boy upon the castrato’s premature death. Though this role would have been better suited to a countertenor, Lindsey Adams fills it well, if awkwardly. Her remarkably clear singing and perfect phrasing is a delight to hear.

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All ten cast members sing beautifully and with exquisite purity of tone, aided by the resonant acoustics of the Athenaeum Theatre. (I hope Haymarket’s first production here will not be the last.) Many of the cast have previously performed with Haymarket, including the talented Chelsea Morris in the title role. While the singing is uniformly excellent, the acting is less accomplished. Most of the opera’s comedy rests on the shoulders of Katlin Foley as Satirino, Patrick Muelheise as Pane, and Ryan de Ryke as Mercurio—especially the latter, whose facial expressions were laugh-out-loud funny. There could have been so much more laughter, however, particularly in the mix-ups between Diana and her human lovers.

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Meriem Bahri’s costumes once again are spectacularly striking, especially the divine raiment of Giove, Giunone, and Diana, which mix classical and baroque styles. Set designer Zuleyka V. Benitez, who didn’t have much space to fill at the Mayne Stage, devises a number of pieces mentioned in the original production notes, including a rotating ouroboros. The most extraordinary creation, however, has to be the peacock chariot that transports Giunone.

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Moving to a much larger venue is no small feat for a young opera company. This production of Francesco Cavalli’s La Calisto at the Athenaum Theatre shows that Haymarket can rise to the challenge. I, for one, am excited to see what happens next season, as the company takes on little-known works by Franz Josef Haydn, Marin Marais, and Alessandro Scarlatti. In the meantime, mark June 11 on your calendars, when Haymarket’s Summer Opera Course will culminate in a truncated performance of Monteverdi’s 1643 L’incoronazione di Poppea.

photos by Charles Osgood

La Calisto
Haymarket Opera Company
Athenaeum Theatre Main Stage
2936 N. Southport Ave.
ends on May 8, 2016
for tickets, visit Athenaeum
for more info, visit Haymarket Opera

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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