Bawdy and Baroque: Cavalli's 'La Calisto' This early opera by Francesco Cavalli revolves around a transgendered tryst involving the king of the gods. Though it's mostly about lust, there's a little true love thrown in, in this production from the Theatre des Champs Elysees in Paris.
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Bawdy and Baroque: Cavalli's 'La Calisto'

Bawdy and Baroque: Cavalli's 'La Calisto'

Hear An Introduction To The Opera

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Though Diana (Marie-Claude Chappuis) has a reputation as a virgin goddess, she nevertheless falls for Endimione (Lawrence Zazzo), in La Calisto. Alvaro Yanez hide caption

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Alvaro Yanez

Though Diana (Marie-Claude Chappuis) has a reputation as a virgin goddess, she nevertheless falls for Endimione (Lawrence Zazzo), in La Calisto.

Alvaro Yanez

The Hit Single

In Act One, Calisto (soprano Sophie Karthäuser) thinks she has successfully rejected Jupiter's advances. In the defiant aria Non e maggior paciermi -- 'There's no greater pleasure' -- she sings that nothing is better than escaping the seduction of men.

'There's No Greater Pleasure'

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The B Side

While much of La Calisto celebrates pure lust, true love gets its due in the relationship between Diana and Endimione (mezzo-soprano Marie-Claude Chappuis and countertenor Lawrence Zazzo), as heard in the Act Three duet Dolcissimi baci -- 'Sweetest Kisses.'

'Sweetest Kisses'

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Francesco Cavalli reached the apex of his career in Venice, near the middle of the 17th century, and he did it by exploiting both sides of what could be described as the city's split musical personality.

At the time, Venice boasted one of the most vibrant musical communities in Europe. For decades, Venice's church of San Marco had employed a who's who of great composers, including Andrea and Giovanni Gabrieli, and Claudio Monteverdi, as well as Cavalli himself.

Cavalli spent decades at San Marco, starting as a boy soprano and later serving as both an organist and composer. His earliest known compositions were written for the church. And in 1668, when he finally got the job as maestro di cappella, San Marco's senior musician, he kept the position until his death eight years later.

But all the way back in 1639, just one day after his first appointment as an organist at San Marco, Cavalli also made his debut in an entirely different Venetian, musical arena, with the premiere of his first opera. And by that time, Venice's theaters were spawning a far different kind of music than the sacred works heard in its churches.

About three decades earlier, when Monteverdi composed what many consider the first great opera, Orfeo, opera was a strictly a courtly enterprise — commissioned for the private entertainment of wealthy aristocrats. By the time Cavalli ended his career, he had helped opera with its first great transformation — from private stages to public theaters, where it served as popular entertainment for a ticket-buying public that couldn't get enough of it.

Cavalli wrote about 30 operas in total, nearly all of them in Venice. They range from somber, mythological dramas, to bawdy, even raunchy comedies that can still seem a bit edgy even in today's theaters. La Calisto, composed in 1651, falls into the latter category. It wasn't among Cavalli's most popular operas during his lifetime, but by now its combination of brief, catchy musical numbers and an overtly sensuous story line has made it one of his most popular compositions.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone brings us Cavalli's La Calisto in a performance from the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, in Paris. The production features the acclaimed baroque ensemble Les Talens Lyriques, led by Christophe Rousset. The vocal stars are soprano Sophie Karthäuser as the nymph Calisto, with bass Giovanni B. Parodi as her all-too-aggressive suitor, the god Jupiter.

See the previous edition of World of Opera or the full archive.

The Story of 'La Calisto'

The satyrs in 'La Calisto' are primarily motivated by unadulterated lust. Alvaro Yanez hide caption

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Alvaro Yanez

Who's Who

Sophie Karthäuser …………… Calisto
Giovanni B. Parodi …………… Jupiter
Marie-Claude Chappuis ... Diana/Eternity
Lawrence Zazzo …………. Endimione
Véronique Gens ……… Juno/Destiny
Cyril Auvity ……………… Pane/Nature
Milena Storti ……………….. Linfea
Mario Cassi ………………. Mercury
Sabina Puértolas ……….. Satirino
Graeme Broadbent ………. Sylvano

Les Talens Lyriques
Christophe Rousset, conductor

After a Prologue featuring characters representing Nature, Eternity and Destiny, ACT ONE begins as Jupiter comes down to earth to restore order after a war. He’s immediately struck by the beauty of Calisto, a nymph. Unfortunately for the amorous Jupiter, Calisto is a follower of the virgin goddess Diana — and has taken a vow of chastity.

This presents an obstacle to Jupiter’s immediate objectives. So his son Mercury suggests that Jupiter use his powers to take the form of Diana. He does this and fools Calisto, who must obey Diana’s every wish. This sets up a rather kinky encounter between the nymph and Jupiter — who at this point is basically a god in drag.

Diana, the virgin goddess herself, is also falling in love, with the shepherd Endimione. As she agonizes over this, with her prudish companion Linfea, Calisto reappears.

Not knowing that the "Diana" she was just cavorting with was an imposter, Calisto approaches the goddess and tells her how much she enjoyed their little get-together — describing it in intimate detail. But this real Diana has no idea what Calisto is talking about. Instead, she's appalled by what she's hearing and sends the nymph away. Linfea then has her own encounter with lust, in the shape of the satyr Satirino, barely escaping his vulgar advances.

Another satyr, Pane, finds that he has also fallen for Diana — but he knows that she's in love with someone else, so he's depressed. As the first act ends, his satyr friends scheme to find Diana’s lover and put him out of the picture.

In ACT TWO Jupiter's wife, the goddess Juno, comes down from the heavens to check up on her husband. Calisto guiltily admits that she’s been intimate with Diana. Juno suspects the "Diana" in question must have been Jupiter in disguise — and finds out she’s right when the phony Diana shows up again with an eye for Calisto.

To make things even more complicated, Endimione turns up and tries to press his own advances on the figure he thinks is Diana, but is actually Jupiter. Naturally, he doesn’t get too far.

The satyr Pane has been watching the whole thing. He still wants Diana for himself, and now he knows for sure that she’s been carrying on with Endimione. Pane and his band capture Endimione and torture him. In the process, the satyrs mock true love in favor of relationships a bit more earthy and a little less dangerous. And even Diana’s chaste companion Linfea seems ready for some uncomplicated pleasure.

As ACT THREE begins, Calisto reminisces about the pleasure she thought she had shared with Diana. She still doesn't know that the "Diana" who seduced her was actually Jupiter in disguise, and now she suffers the consequences.

Calisto is confronted by Juno, along with two hideous furies from the underworld. Juno’s punishment for Calisto is to turn her into a bear. Jupiter now admits that he really does love Calisto, but even his power can’t undo Juno’s curse.

Meanwhile, the real Diana remains the object of many desires: She has fallen even more deeply for the contemplative young shepherd, Endimione, and the satyr Pane also wants her — though for less spiritual reasons. But eventually, Pane and his crew grow disgusted by the genuine affection between Diana and Endimione, and decide to leave the lovers to their fate.

Jupiter then decides that while he can’t break Juno’s spell and change Calisto back into a nymph, he can save her from wandering the woods as a bear. First, he gives her a brief time on earth. Then, as the opera ends, Jupiter sends Calisto into the heavens, to the constellation of Ursa Major. There, she can live forever as a star, enjoying the celestial harmonies.