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Review: High Art in Small Places, Part I - A Deliciously Baroque LA CALISTO from Juilliard Opera

Mezzo Samantha Hankey and countertenor
Jakub Jozef Orlinski. Photo: Rosalie O'Connor

Grand opera--lavish in scale, setting and voices--certainly has its place, but, oh, the joys of hearing Cavalli and Faustini's bawdy, early baroque charmer LA CALISTO in a theatre with fewer than 100 seats! The Juilliard Opera did just that, at their Rosemary and Meredith Willson Theatre, in a superbly directed and choreographed production by Zack Winokur that also boasted Juilliard415, the school's period instrument ensemble, conducted by early music specialist Stephen Stubbs. The production not only proved a great showcase for the singers, dancers and instrumentalists but for the opera itself, which is still infrequently heard and should be better known.

The opera is an oldie but goodie, dating back to 1651, near the start of opera as a public entertainment rather than simply for royal amusement. According to the conventions of the time, the libretto had to be drawn from mythology and, here, it was a mash-up of two myths: The seduction of Calisto by Jupiter (here, Giove) and the adventure of Diana (virgin goddess of the hunt) with Endimione, a shepherd. It's the old story--god falls for virginal follower of the goddess of the hunt but is rejected; god becomes goddess of the hunt (his daughter) to woo virgin; shepherd who loves virgin gets caught up in the trickery; the god's wife finds out about the trickery and turns virgin into a bear because she can't punish her husband; and, finally, god promises virgin immortality in the heavens (as, I assume, Ursa Major, the Big Bear, better known as the Big Dipper).

What romance! More important, what hilarity--and challenges, demanding the skills of experienced farceurs as well as flexible singing from the vocal performers, who ranged from undergraduate to more established performers studying for advanced degrees. Overall, they were an impressive group, kept very busy by the demands of the score as well as by the quick entrances and exits devised by director Winokur, working with scenic designers, Charlap Hyman & Herrero and lighting designer Marcus Doshi, to magically turn the black box theatre into a forest glen ready for anything.

Mezzo Samantha Hankey impressed with her ability to differentiate dramatically between her dual roles of Diana and Giove-as-Diana as well as for her burnished, mellow sound that melded beautifully with Angela Vallone's pure-voiced Calisto. (Soprano Vallone was also adept at showing her confusion about the twin Dianas' shifting affection.) As the shepherd, countertenor Jakub Jozef Orlinski did some very lovely singing, sounding more alto-like and richer than I usually expect from this type of voice.

Soprano Julia Wolcott was vengeful one moment and hurt the next as Giove's wife, Giunione (Juno), whipping her voice into a frenzy. (Wolcott also had the best dress in town, thanks to costume designer Austin Scarlett and the antics of the three furies, Nicholas Jurica, Sean Lammer and Evan Rappaport, from Juilliard Dance; the three men, costumed as if they dropped in from the new film, "Deadpool," performed all kinds of gymnastics under the billowing folds of the gown to very amusing effect.)

The character roles almost seemed like they were drawn by Shakespeare. Light tenor Michael St. Peter was playfully lascivious as Mercurio (Mercury), sidekick to the imposing Giove of bass Xiaomeng Zhang. Tenor Matthew Swenson had fun as the satyr Pane (Pan), trying to wreak vengeance on Endimione as his rival for Diana's affection (though not viewed as such by Diana); his woodland mates Silvano (bass-baritone Cody Quattlebaum) and Satirino (mezzo Caitlin Redding) were deft participants in the amusement, both vocally and physically. Finally, baritone Alexander McKissick was a well-sung Linfea, female companion to Calisto, managing to be both amusingly prudish and girlish.

However, the singers couldn't have done their jobs so well without the brilliant musical ensemble, led by Stubbs from the harpsichord, providing a rich, gorgeous musical line that was intrinsic to the dramedy at hand. Written only a few decades after the death of Shakespeare, the opera could have carried the subtitle, "A comedy of errors." It could have also used the tagline, "All's well that ends well"--and who could argue after seeing Juilliard's marvelous production?


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