Portland Opera hit a home run into the celestial skies with its new production of “La Calisto,” an opera written by the Venetian composer Francesco Cavalli in 1651. Exquisite singing by the entire cast (most of whom belong to the Studio Artists program), stellar playing by the Portland Baroque Orchestra under the conducting of Robert Ainsley, and an evocative set, designed by Curt Enderle, combined to make this “La Calisto” a charming experience. The near capacity audience at the Newmark Theatre on opening night (Friday, March 13) enthusiastically embraced this fanciful retelling of two myths (Calisto and Giove plus Diana and Endimione) that came from ancient Greece and Rome.
Sharin Aposolou sparkled in the role of Calisto, a young follower of the goddess Diana. Her clear and supple soprano was thrilling, especially in the way that she impeccably dashed off numerous runs as if they were the easiest things in the world. Apostolou conveyed the naiveté of Calisto with spot-on acting as well.
Jonathan Kimple created a convincing Giove, using his resonant bass to underscore his stature as the king of the gods. His seduction of Calisto was tempered at the end of the story when he promised her and her son a place in the heavens (hence Ursa Major and Ursa Minor). Baritone José Rubio artfully greased the wheels of Giove’s intentions as Giove’s sidekick Mecurio.
Mezzo Hannah S. Penn embodied two characters so convincingly that she could consider a second career as a double agent in the secret service. In the role of Diana, goddess of the moon and the hunt, Penn created a young woman who was torn between her pledge to chastity and her desire to love Endimione, a young shepherd. In the role of Giove disguised as Diana, Penn marvelously captured the swagger and chauvinistic pride of the top god in his pursuit of Calisto.
Gerald Thompson in the role of Endimione displayed his countertenor to stunning effect, dispatching all sorts of tricky passages with breathtaking control. Yet his tender duet with Penn was one of the many high points in this production.
Wearing a gown hemmed with the image of peacock feathers, mezzo Angela Niederloh as Giunone (the wife of Giove) strutted around the raked stage in peacock gown and high heels. The flinty wrath of her voice and the fire in her eyes could’ve torched the landscape a second time (it had already been burnt to a crisp when the story began).
Mezzo Kendra Herrington’s Linfea, a zealous follower of Diana, provided additional comic relief when she revealed her desire for a lover. Laughter reached an apex after the eager young satyr, Satirino, sung by soprano Anne Mckee Reed, impulsively kissed the astonished Linfea.
Tenor Brendan Tuohy sang superbly and reaped plenty of laughter as Pane, the god of the shepherds, who can’t really carry out any dastardly deeds no matter how much he threatens to do so. Baritone Bobby Jackson’s Silvano, a young satyr and cohort in Pane’s posse was terrific also.
Ainsley conducted a period orchestra of Baroque specialists with élan, shaping the music with sensitivity and purpose. A unique collaboration with Portland Baroque Orchestra helped to assemble these instrumentalists (playing violin, viola da gamba, lirone, theorbo, lute, guitar, recorder, dulcian, cornetto, harpisichord, and organ) and create a musical experience that would have been very similar to what Venetians heard 350 years ago.
Stage director Ned Canty made the story easy to follow. The minimalist set design by Curt Enderele and the lighting by Don Crossley enhanced the opera perfectly. Sue Bonde’s colorful costumes added wonderfully to the mix.
All in all, Portland Opera’s production of “La Calisto” is a knock out. I encourage you to get a ticket if any are available. Two remaining shows run on March 19 and 21.