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Midsummer Brooklyn Night’s Dream

New York
Proteus Gowanus, 543 Union Street, Brooklyn
07/09/2011 -  & July 10, 14, 16, 2011
Francesco Cavalli: La Calisto

Marcy Richardson (Diana, Eternity, The Fake Diana), Holly Gash (Calisto), Matthew Curran (Giove/Jupiter), Aram Tchobanian (Mercury), Hayden DeWitt (Endimione), Toby Newman (Linfea), Nicholas Tamagna (Nature), Joseph Hill (Destiny and Satirino), NathanBaer (Silvano), Judith Barnes (Giunone/Juno)
The VPR Chorus, The VPR Dancers, The VPR Consort: Jennifer Peterson (Conductor and Harpsichord), Rachel Evans and Joan Plana Nadal (Baroque Violins), Richard Kolb (Theorbo), Motomi Igarashi (Viola da Gamba and Lirone)
Judith Barnes (The Vertical Player Repertory Director and Set Design), Gregg Goff (Lighting Design), Heather Green (Costume Design), Scott Crawford (Choreography and Stage Manager)

M. Richardson (© Joseph Henry Ritter/The Vertical Player Repertory)

If Claudio Monteverdi was the master of music for his theater–that newfangled Venetian genre we now call opera–his contemporary, Francesco Cavalli, was master of theater for his music. And theater, movement, costume, character, is exactly what director Judith Barnes has understood in this frankly glorious mounting of the 1651 La Calisto

Cavalli’s music, on that delicate edge merging recitative and arias together, is rarely as memorable as Monteverdi’s more brazen arias. But Cavalli had, by far, the more inventive librettist in Giovanni Faustini–a man who should stand with Boito and Da Ponte for inspiration, poetry and depth. But staging an opera like Calisto has evidently obvious challenges.

How, for instance, does one physically separate gods from mortals? How can the sex scenes play out without being tawdry? What does one do about a mighty Jupiter impersonating a chaste woman, going to bed with another equally chaste woman?

Most of all, how does one stage Calisto with comedy, tragedy, sex, violence and reverence without it being High Camp?

Ms. Barnes has solved those problems in the most improbable setting: the courtyard of a Brooklyn tenement cum factory on the old Gowanus Canal. With the small instrumental consort on the side, she has set the only prop, a unkempt bed in the middle of the stage utilizing the al fresco urban space with matchless and unending imagination.

Gods come from Heaven to Earth via an extravagantly high fire escape. Immotals wear the most gorgeous Greek garb, while mortals wear costumes circa, perhaps, the 17th Century. An open tenement window serves as entrance for a whirligig satyr.

And that bed? In the complex story–and I urge every listener to read the plot thoroughly–the eponymous heroine sleeps alone, or makes love with the goddess Diana (actually the mighty Jupiter played by the real Diana!). The real makes love with an astronomer on the bed The drunken Pan goes to a snoring sleep on the bed, while the astronomer goes to a happy eternal sleep on the same bed.

In the meantime, Ms. Barnes uses the rest of the courtyard for dances, for violence, for the miraculous appearnace of water and flowers and even for magical transformations from beautiful heroine to an ambling bear.

The secret of this staging isn’t only the delicious courtyard setting or the radiant costumes by Heather Green. It is that Ms. Barnes has managed to equilibrate chaos and intimacy. We may see an orgy staged as dance, but our eyes follow a real attempt at orgy with a satyr pursuing onstage and off, the youngest of the dancers. We may see the astronomer being bound up ready for murder, but simultaneously, the Gods are high up in the heavens waiting and watching.

Faustini based Calisto on Ovid’s Metamorphosis, but his characters were those of drama, not poetry. The situations may be farcical–the farce of mistaken identities–but the people are real. And such was it played here with the most memorable characters in any opera.

Marcy Richardson, bleach-blonde hair bunched up, may have been Wonder Woman–i.e. Diana, leader of the chaste Amazons. But she also played–as brilliant tomboy–Jupiter transformed into Diana herself to seduce Calisto. (Other productions have the bass playing Jupiter in both rules, but I prefer this sheer cross-dressing crossed with more cross-dressing.)

As in Rosenkavalier, we had this mixture of sexualities, but always real people. Ms. Richardson could be awkward or warm, sensual, or the absolute fishwife! A brilliant performance.

A. Tchobanian (© Joseph Henry Ritter/The Vertical Player Repertory)

Aram Tchobanian was equally unforgettable as the mischievous Mercury. Mr. Tchobanian looked like Falstaff painted by Franz Hals. Endlessly shuffling cards, looking for “the angle” (like a political fixer), suddenly whipping out a tape measure for Jupiter’s transformation...

Countertenor Joseph Hill winds his body courageously as a Satyr, Matthew Curran is a most majestic Jupiter (a bit befuddled like the King of the Gods who doesn’t quite know how to keep his position). And Judith Barnes as Juno, the cuckolded wife getting her revenge, is...well, Junoesque.

Part of the same theatricality are the dancers/choruses, playing in turn, “Dead Souls, Shepherds, Furies, Constellations, Snakes of Eternity, Peacocks” etc. Their movements were lively (the two young dancers, Allegra Durante and Chitra Raghavan were the perfect nymphs), and while the chorus was not always on key, this hardly detracted from the rousing story.

M. Richardson, A. Tchobanian, H. Gash
(© Joseph Henry Ritter/The Vertical Player Repertory)

Still, while this was great theater, Cavalli and Faustino were creating an opera. Musically, we have a rare few good arias–the original love scene between Diana and Calisto, and an emotional monologue by the Satyr–but the voices and very discreet period are almost secondary.

Holly Gash, as Calisto herself, is less actor than acted upon, but her voice is luscious through all her ordeals. (The poor dear is transformed into a bear (not good), but at least she will be eternal in the Big Dipper (quite good)). Hayden DeWitt, as the astronomer, is suitably sad and euphoric as he is seduced by Diana. Toby Newman literally lets her hair down, transformed in the metamorphosis, from Diana’s timid servant to a honky-tonk girl lookin’ for love in the audience.

At the close, as the sky has gone from sundown to night, one thinks less of this as historic Baroque opera as an experience in dazzling musical theater. Befitting its Ovidian its origins in Metamorphosis, Ms. Barnes has transformed the kaleidoscope of actions and characters into an ever revealing tapestry.

Three more performances are set for La Calisto, and methinks that those who buy ticket to Peter Brooks thinned down Magic Flute may see the other side of opera in these captivating, and often extravagant Greek myths in a Brooklyn courtyard.

CODA: Tickets are available through brownpapertickets.com. Transport is through the R or F subway to Carroll Street or Union Street, with a ten-minute walk to Gowanus Canal, over the bridge to the first alley on the left.

Harry Rolnick



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