Seventy five bucks a pop.
That’s how much you’ll be shelling out if you elect to see Portland Opera’s new production of “La Calisto,” a mid-17th century opera by Francesco Cavalli, which opened last Friday at the Newmark Theatre and features young singers from the company’s studio artist program. It’s a hefty tab to hoist on hungry audiences in a “great recession” belt-tightening economy.
I wouldn’t usually bitch about the price of any live performance, except what was seen and heard on the Newmark stage last Friday night doesn’t come close to meriting the sticker shock. “Calisto,” a recently rediscovered early Baroque gem from one of Monteverdi’s top pupils, is an exquisite musical fantasy opera, exploding with character and color. Portland Opera’s production of the work is something else entirely.
First, the good news. In a mythical music theatre work that riffs on the constant realignment of the stars, two star-bright performances do emerge. As the huntress-in-heat Diana, mezzo Hannah S. Penn adds another indelible performance to her run as a Portland Opera studio artist. Dressed to kill in a leopard-print trench coat with a shock of long red hair, Penn’s volatile and sexy Diana emerges as a much-needed emotional and musical anchor for the opera, sung with warm expressivity and sound musicianship. And who knew resident diva mezzo Angela Niederloh was such a rubber-faced comedienne? Niederloh’s queenly Juno veers from impassioned rage to coy cattiness, and all of it is superlatively sung. She’s onstage for maybe fifteen minutes, and handily walks away with the show.
The rest of this “Calisto” doesn’t shine nearly as strong. Like much early opera, the original score offers only clues as to how modern musicians might reconstruct the work; the rest is left up to the imagination of the conductor and the players he employs. This is one of the production’s fatal flaws: conductor Robert Ainsley’s realization, played under his direction by a small band of period instrumentalists from Portland Baroque Orchestra, lacks the fire, imagination or drive essential to launch this opera fantasy to the stars.
There are other weird things: the horny young satyrs are outfitted in raggy dreadlocks; some of the male principal singers substitute bluster for expressivity; and there’s a laughable “magic stream” trick to boot. In the title role of a wandering nymph, the fine young soprano Sharin Apostolou does her best to convey some of the surreal wonder of the whole sorry tale, but isn’t helped nearly enough by stage director Ned Canty, who too frequently lets his singers stare blank-eyed out into the house.
In a scene late into the opera, Calisto waits patiently for her lover Diana, when Juno appears instead, to act revenge on Calisto for her amorous adventures. In a flurry of sinister strings and piercing vocal cries, Juno summons a chorus of furies to transform Calisto into an animal her lover could never dare desire: a lumbering bear. Finally, for a few gorgeous moments, we witness something magical and potent — a sense that real fantasy, whatever the price, is still sometimes possible in the opera house.
[photo courtesy Portland Opera/Cory Weaver. Front: Sharin Apostolou (Calisto). Back l-r: Jonathan Kimple (Giove) and José Rubio (Mercurio)]