The baroque music style (1580-1750) started in Florence, Italy with a group of humanists, musicians, poets and intellectuals under the patronage of Count Giovanni de’ Bardi. They based their ideas on ancient Classical Greek, and Roman music and drama. In 1598, this movement gave birth to the art form of Opera with Jacopo Peri’s “Dafne” with libretto by Ottavio Rinuccini which was first performed at the Palazzo Corsi in Florence, Italy.
The word baroque derives from the Portuguese “barroco,” which means a misshapen pearl as it refers to the overtly ornamented style of music of this period. On the other hand, the word opera means to “work” in Italian, and it refers to the effort to put together a production of this genre or its result.
Early opera productions were performed for the Royal courts until composer Claudio Monteverdi in 1637 began to showcase his work during Carnival in the Italian city of Mantua. The Baroque Opera “La Calisto” (1651) by Francesco Cavalli from libretto by Giovanni Faustini finally made its Los Angeles premier at the historical, 102 year-old Ebell Club of Highland Park presented by Pacific Opera Project on Thursday, May 1 with a six-day, two-weekend run.
The opera combines the mythical stories of the seduction of the nymph Calisto (soprano – Claire Averill) by the Roman god Jupiter/Giove (baritone – Ryan Thorne) with the one of the love between the goddess Diana (mezzo-soprano – Sarah Beaty) and the mortal Endimione (countertenor – Bryan Pollock).
With a capacity crowd gathered mostly around tables served with wine, cheese, crackers and other munchies, the performance began with a clever introduction via video of the cast members, supporters as well as others involved in the production. Given the humor of this presentation, you got a feeling that this was not going to be a stuffy opera that most people fear getting dragged to by their spouse, lover or cultured friend.
In the left side corner of the floor, hidden by an improvised low wall, was the wonderful chamber orchestra which included mostly strings, a harpsichord (small piano) and a lute-like instrument – which is not seen very often in the standard opera orchestra. It was the harpsichord which defined most of the evening’s music and accompanied many of the pivotal moments in the story.
One of the two main storylines follows the escapades of the king of the Roman gods, Jupiter/Giove (Thorne) and his sidekick the god Mercury/Mercurio (lyric baritone – Adrian Rosales) as they travel to earth in order to “check” on how the human race is dealing with the effects of its wars. In reality Giove has his eyes on a young hottie nymph name Calisto (Averill) and he wants Mercurio to help him get into her skirt.
Thorne plays Giove as a philandering cad who, while married to the goddess Juno/Giounone (soprano -Daria Somers), loves to visit earth from Heaven for a “fling” now and then. The more diminutive Mercurio (Rosales) informs his king that this beauty is a devotee of his daughter, the goddess Diana and that he should disguise himself as she in order to woe her.
In a very funny scene, Thorne who is a baritone, not only comes out in “drag” as his daughter but sings to Calisto as a countertenor which is close to a soprano voice. The plan works, as Calisto in this pseudo “lesbian” scene allows the pseudo Diana to profess her love while showering her with kisses and attention. All three singers have strong voices and acting abilities, but it is Thorne who steals the scene with his attention to detail and athletic abilities which gives his character full dimension.
The second storyline revolves around a handsome shepherd named Endimione (countertenor – Bryan Pollock), who is also a devotee of the goddess Diana. As he witnessed the goddess with a group of nymphs headed by their older “drag” leader Linfea (Joseph von Butler), he is overwhelmed and professes his love to her. The jealous Linfea mocks this mortal while Diana remains aloof, as she secretly has the hots for this tall and handsome human.
Adding to these stories is the presence of a group of satyrs (half man/goat) headed by the god Pan/Pane, played hilariously by the portly E. Scott Levin – who is also in love with Diana and Satirino (countertenor – Patrick Dailey). They create havoc in several scenes with their furry penises. Both Dailey and Levin possess strong voices and acting chops, which makes for entertaining, slapstick and sometimes over the top penis centric risqué scenes.
The overall production look is a creative fusion of street art/graffiti, traditionally inspired Roman period costumes with touches of naughty Teletubbies – as in the case of the satyrs’ costumes. The set design is a clever use of an old children’s playground apparatus with two slides as the path from heaven to earth and park bathroom stalls acting as return portals to the Kingdom of the gods, accompanied with a toilet flushing sound effect as they ascend to heaven.
Greek and Roman mythology is full of decadence, sex and scandalous plots. Those naughty and sometimes nice gods and mortals provided most stories and characters of the early Opera repertoire. This production of “La Calisto” presented by Pacific Opera Project (headed by director Josh Shaw) has taken an approach similar to early opera experiences by making it fun, with food and booze as you watch the performance in a “Cabaret” style environment.
Sometimes the sexual situations on stage are a bit over the top and the complex singing in baroque music a bit rough around the edges for some of the singers, but the experience is certainly entertaining, relaxed and not your typical “Night at The Opera.”