La Calisto by Francesco Cavalli is a beautiful opera in three acts, ripe for fun and games. Characters hide and overhear things they shouldn’t, dresses are taken on an off, and cross dressing is de rigeur! It’s all typical of Venetian opera action and ends with the lead character being turned into bear and then getting the Option B of ascending into the sky to become a constellation. All within a framework of wanton sexuality and frustrated love-making. Little wonder then that the performance I saw was sold out.
Even though the work is nearly 400 years old, it still tugs at the heart strings with the the lyrical quality of the music so haunting and at times heart-rending. The poetry of the libretto by Giovanni Faustini is interwoven with the natural world, the forces of the Gods, and the power of passion. The opera is said to be a ‘lost masterpiece’, as it was shelved for centuries until it re-emerged in the twentieth century. It was certainly dusted off and shaken down at Sydney Conservatorium of Music Opera School on Friday.
True love and unbridled lust were unleashed on the school stage as director Elsie Edgerton-Till and Set and Costume Designer Isabella Andronos presented this production. Directed from the harpsichord by Professor Neal Peres Da Costa, the talented students and players of the Early Music Ensemble, part of the historical performance division, gave us all a rich opportunity to immerse ourselves in the intriguing world of 17th century Venetian opera.
La Calisto, sung in Italian with English surtitles, is a great choice and at the same time a huge challenge for young voices. A rich variety of singers and vocal tones in Con Opera rose to the occasion seamlessly for this production, which is a long one – over two hours.
Set in a wedding reception venue, complete with a tacky champagne fountain and waiters carrying buckets, the colourful use of the stage and the constant movement of the cast created an immediate impact. Minimal props forced the singers to engage with the space on stage and with the audience, which they did extremely confidently.
The lead role of Calisto on the opening night was performed by Samanta Lestavel, who sang with consistency and beauty for such a demanding role. She also brought to the follower of Diana humour and some appropriately strident female gestures!
Jupiter, Calisto’s deceptive lover, who dresses as Diana to trick and ‘kiss’ her, was performed charasmatically by Tristan Entwistle, supported by Jeremy Dubé as Mercury, his sidekick. Joshua Oxley pranced about indignantly as a captivating Pan.
In terms of the male singers, countertenor Robert Adam, playing Linfea, stood out in terms of vocal projection, sensitivity and power. Wow! Watch this space!
Beautiful Viktoria Bolonina played Diana with a rich mezzo soprano and ease of style on stage. Juno’s famous aria, where she curses Calisto, was delivered in a suitably frightening way by Aimee O’Neill in a very glittery dress!
The whole cast was supported by a funny and rambunctious female and male chorus, complete with constant questing for more wine, more champagne, and well yes, more sex!
The Early Music Ensemble playing in the pit at the music workshop couldn’t see what was going on up on stage (maybe just as well!), but supported and painted the scenes vibrantly. It was fabulous to hear the viola da gamba, a recorder trio, the theorbo, and the precursor to the bassoon – the bass dulcian. For some students, it was the first time they had played on the early instruments, in particular the cornetto, which is a great opportunity for them.
The final act, where Calisto ascends up a ladder, painted in gold, to the swirling lighting of Christopher Page’s design, was beautifully staged. The grouping of the cast at that point was outstanding, and deserved the huge applause they received. Bravo and congratulations to everyone at Con Opera!
Con Opera, the opera studio at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, present two fully-staged operas with orchestra each year. In 2017, Con Opera will also present Mozart’s The Magic Flute.