Days Bay Opera in great success with early opera, La Calisto

Opera in a Days Bay Garden presents:
Cavalli: La Calisto

Conductor/Keyboards – Howard Moody
Director – Sara Brodie
Producer – Rhona Fraser
Opera in a Day’s Bay Garden Orchestra

Cast: Jove, King of the Gods – Robert Tucker
Mercury, his Messenger – Fletcher Mills
Calisto, A Nymph in Diana’s band – Carleen Ebbs
Endymion, a love-struck Shepherd – Stephen Diaz
Diana, adored Cult-Leader – Maaike Christie-Beekman
Linfea, one of Diana’s Maidens – Imogen Thirlwall
Satirino, a Satyr – Jess Segal
Pan, desperately seeking Diana – Linden Loader
Sylvano, one of Pan’s People – Simon Christie
Juno, Queen of the Gods  – Rhona Fraser
Juno’s Furies – Katherine McIndoe / Rose Blake
Satyr Dancers – Christopher Watts / Jack Newton

Canna House, Day’s Bay, Wellington

Wednesday 11 February, 2015, 6:30 pm

Review modified and edited by Lindis Taylor from Peter Mechen’s notes for his on-air review for Upbeat!)

In Days Bay Opera’s growing record of enterprising opera productions, this one was perhaps the most adventurous yet; it was certainly the earliest. La Calisto was first performed in Venice in 1651 – the composer was Francesco Cavalli and the libretto was written by Cavalli’s most frequent collaborator, Giovanni Faustini. For the story of Calisto he had woven together two myths – the story of the nymph Calisto and her seduction by Jupiter, and of the shepherd Endymion and his love for the goddess Diana.

Francesco Cavalli was born in Lombardi in 1602, which places him between Monteverdi, whose extant operas appeared between 1607 (Orfeo) and the early 1640s (Ritorno d’Ulisse and Poppea), and the more-or-less-known names that appeared later in the 17th century, like Cesti, Steffani (who was featured in a Composer of the Week programme last year, the hero of Cecilia Bartoli’s Mission CD), Stradella, Alessandro Scarlatti (strange that the French opera composers Lully, Charpentier, Campra, get ignored in this context), and later, Vivaldi, Porpora and many others including of course, Handel, an Italian opera composer par excellence.

Cavalli wrote forty-one operas as well as a lot of other music – church music for performance at St Mark’s in Venice, where he was organist and choirmaster until his death in 1676 at the age of 73.

A surprising number of his operas have been staged in the past half century, including Australia. This seems to be the first in New Zealand.

La Calisto wasn’t one of Cavalli’s great successes; a revival at Glyndebourne in 1970 put it on the map. Accepting the conventions of the time, the opera has proved popular: the story is by turns erotic and savage, silly and profound, the music is catchy, and the action is swiftly-moving and filled with interest.

That was certainly the case at Days Bay – the action never flagged, but was kept nicely spinning, the story of a bunch of gods behaving badly – in fact, behaving like the human beings they’re supposed to be setting an example to. The director Sara Brodie achieved a balance between music, drama and setting – no one thing dominated, which was extraordinarily satisfying.  Entertainment rather than profundity was the main concern of conductor and director, though there was a level at which serious issues were well handled; the emphasis was on communication with the audience.

Given the open air performance, diction was generally clear. Characters were sharply-drawn and entirely convincing, and an ear for wit and a lightness of touch enhanced the buoyancy and energy of it all. There were no stage designs or sets – the house, the decks and the environment served excellently – but the costumes were amusing and suggestive.

There was very fine singing from local singers and the instrumental playing – a mix of violins, cello, double-bass, harpsichord, organ with two recorders, dulcian (an early bassoon) and a theorbo, under the lively and sensitive direction of English conductor and early music specialist Howard Moody who had been a colleague of Rhona Fraser’s in England – produced textures that were coloured with a keen sense of the period.

Duets and ensembles were as important as solo moments so that no one singer dominated, least of all the lead role, Calisto. Nevertheless, from her first entrance, Carleen Ebbs as Calisto made a richly sonorous impression, producing tones that illuminated the words’ intention – for example she contrasted nicely her chaste rejection of Jove’s initial advances, with her besotted acceptance of the bogus Diana as her lover (Jove in drag and singing falsetto). Ebbs is a voice to listen out for.

Another to impress was the Jove of Robert Tucker, whom I’d seen previously as Noye in the Festival’s production of Noye’s Fludde. His rich voice was matched by wholehearted acting as Jove, the characterization thrown into bold relief by his portrayal of Diana, sung in a falsetto voice, but with irruptions of male testosterone fuelling both the excitement and the tensions of possible discovery by Calisto of the deception.

As the lovesick Endymion, counter-tenor Stephen Diaz was magnetic, with a deportment allied to a voice which occasionally generated a kind of unearthly angelic quality. The object of his desires, Maaike Christie-Beekman’s Diana beautifully and convincingly maintained the balance between public disinterest while privately besotted with her handsome shepherd, her diction allowing the words their full expression.

Imogen Thirlwell always commands attention on stage as a fine actress, and her voice has such lift and energy, galvanizing any role she takes on. Here Linfea’s thoughts ran the full gamut of the lovesick maiden’s thoughts and feelings in a totally convincing fashion. And Rhona Fraser as Juno was just wonderful – properly imperious, implacable and vengeful – a force to be reckoned with (as a hapless young male audience member found out to his embarrassment, though he didn’t entirely panic at being suddenly thrust into the limelight!).

Simon Christie and Linden Loader gave characteristically solid performances as Sylvano and Pan respectively, as did Fletcher Mills as Mercury, Jove’s occasionally libidinous sidekick!

But it was the teamwork which impressed as much as anything, the ensembles, the co-operative dovetailing of tones, the delight in gaging exactly what and how much was needed in any given situation.


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