Jacob Thoman, Alexander McKissick, Sean Lammer, Samantha Hankey, Jakub Józef Orliński (photo by Rosalie O'Connor)
The playing area was filled with nymphs and satyrs, gods and goddesses--strange figures to be sure; and yet their concerns are our concerns today. The social media generation did not invent unfulfilled romantic longing, sexual dalliances overcoming chaste intentions, rejection, cross-dressing, lesbian love, romantic deception, nor vengeful wives. There was something particularly thrilling about seeing ourselves onstage in a work dating back nearly four centuries. Not just thrilling but moving as well. Love and sex will always be with us until the robots take over!
A particularly fine cast at Juilliard brought Francesco Cavalli's 1651 opera to vivid life. It is difficult to believe that this marvelous work lay dormant until 1970. How fortunate we are that it was discovered and revived. It lets us in on what the mid 17th c. Venetians expected from a rather new popular art form. Cavalli was there at the birth of opera.
Impresario/librettist Giovanni Faustini had created many operas with Cavalli; this one was their penultimate production. The story was derived from Ovid's Metamorphosis and recounts the story of Jove pretending to be the goddess Diana in order to seduce the beautiful chaste Calisto. The tale is padded out with the love story between the real Diana and the shepherd Endimione. In every case, chastity falls under the weight of sexual desire.
Let us describe a few of the vocal and dramatic treasures in the production, which was directed and choreographed by the wildly talented polymath Zack Winokur. The wily Mercurio (fine tenor Michael St. Peter) convinces Giove (authoritative baritone Xiaomeng Zhang) that persuasion is no match for deception when trying to seduce a woman. Their duet was musically gorgeous and also quite humorous.
In the title role, the beautiful soprano Angela Vallone impressed with the grace of her movement and the beautiful tonal quality of her voice as she sang about wanting to lead a chaste life, devoted to the goddess Diana. In a clever bit of stage business, Giove transforms himself into Diana and the exceptional mezzo-soprano Samantha Hankey completely convinced us by means of vocal coloring and masculinized body movement. The two women had a tender duet before entering a cave to exchange chaste kisses (which led to much more).
When the real Diana appears her voice and gestures are very different and there is no doubt that she is the real thing. When Calisto refers to their makeout session, Diana is outraged by the inference and tosses Calisto out of the virginal sisterhood.
Diana, on her part, is secretly in love with the shepherd Endimione who expresses his longing for her in the most exquisite aria. Countertenor Jakub Józef Orliński was the perfect choice for this role, appearing innocent and singing with the sweetest sound.
Comic relief was provided by three nymphs of the sisterhood--all portrayed by men in a delightful gender bending bit of casting. Two of the nymphs (Sean Lammer and Jacob Thoman) were borrowed from Juilliard Dance, as was Nicholas Jurica and Evan Rapaport who, with Mr. Lammer, comprised the three Furies from hell. But oh, that third nymph! We always knew that tenor Alexander McKissick had comedic talents, but here he rose to new heights as Linfea, one of the sisterhood who would very much like to give up her virginity.
In spite of her desperation, there is no way Linfea is going to settle for the importuning of Satirino (the fine mezzo-soprano Caitlin Redding, sporting goat horns and hooves). He is a member of the clutch of satyrs, of which the leader is the god Pane, marvelously portrayed by tenor Matthew Swensen. As Silvano, one of the satyrs, bass-baritone Cody Quattlebaum turned in a fine and physical performance. One of the funniest scenes was the one in which the nymphs win a battle with the satyrs.
Act II brought on new delights as Giunone, the jealous wife of Giove, appears with her furies bearing her aloft under her huge golden skirt, in a stunning bit of stage business. Soprano Julia Wolcott gave her all to the revenge aria in which she instructs women not to put up with philandering husbands but rather to take revenge. Her particular revenge is to transform Calisto into a bear.
The singing was so fine all around that we could not have imagined better casting. Surely it helped that Cavalli wrote such singable music. As far as the orchestra goes, it was a small chamber orchestra, such as it was in its own time. Juilliard415 is the school's principal period-instrument ensemble and they did full justice to Cavalli's writing, conducted by the renowned Stephen Stubbs. There were theorbos and lutes, guitars and violins, cello, bass, harpsichord and some percussion used for dramatic effect. The bass stood out, playing with force and providing emphasis.
The costumes by Austin Scarlett were stunning. The nymphs wore soft graceful gowns; the satyrs really did appear goatlike; Giove was regal, Giunone was imposing in her golden gown, and Mercurio had appropriate wings on his head and feet.
Scenic design by Charlap Hyman & Herrero comprised backdrops painted like woodlands with a few screens for characters to hide behind when spying on one another. Misha Kahn's golden chandelier and sconces looked just right. Marcus Doshi's lighting design was effective.
The overall result was an evening that was not only entertaining but thought-provoking. We wondered why human nature has not evolved in four centuries! We can only imagine what this opera looked like in Venice in 1650 but we can be fairly certain that the librettist put onstage dilemmas that were familiar to his audience.
Our feeling of connection with the 17th c. left us feeling very joyful; a time and place that, while very distant, was made to seem so familiar.
(c) meche kroop