Thursday, May 6, 2010

We will barock you (2): The premiere of La Calisto at Théâtre des Champs-Élysées

La Calisto,  Théâtre des Champs-Élysées (TCE), May 5, 2010

Christophe Rousset, conductor
Macha Makeïeff,

Sophie Karthäuser,
Lawrence Zazzo,
Giovanni Battista Parodi,
Véronique Gens,
Giunone, Il Destino
Marie-Claude Chappuis,
L'Eternità, Diana
Milena Storti,
Cyril Auvity,
La Natura, Pane
Mario Cassi,
Sabina Puértolas,
Graeme Broadbent,

Les Talens Lyriques

La prima of the new production of La Calisto at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées (TCE) last night was OKish. I am certainly not addicted to the ancient music, especially if it's too long [Act1=60min, break=20min, Act2=50min, break=20min, Act3=45min], but since this is a true new production & with excellent musicians, I decided it was worth seeing.

Like most (all?!) of these ancient operas, the story of La Calisto only apparently describes the relation "gods and/vs humans". It actually describes relationship of our real life and our desires. La Calisto was resuscitated from the operatic cemetery in Glyndebourne 1970, and I don't think it remained in the repertoire solely because of its music [Monteverdi was already enough and the later baroque repertoire did not have a broad fan base yet].  It's more likely because of its rich libretto.  It may appear messy if you read it quickly, but it's not ---> follow the threads/characters, it's fun [you can read it here]. 

OK. I hope you read it and saw behind the plot a story about each one of us: our ways to deal with our emotions, with our sexual drive, about us when we transform into a person who could seduce the one(s) we're attracted to, about our petty jealousies, our readiness to do most irrational things because of love, about us unable to resist temptations and us risking everything for love/sex, about our terrible anger when wounded by infidelity of our spouses... Still the final message is "moralistic": (1) do not fall for a married man [because you may spend the rest of you life like a bear!]; (2) on the long run the threesome never works. ;)

With such a rich libretto --which may give countless possibilities to any inspired director-- and with such a morally comforting outcome,  the opera had all the ingredients to become success [FYI, there is a famous DVD by René Jacobs and his crew].

Musically, it's Monteverdian. There are quite a few pleasant vocal moments but as a whole it's what it is: it's before Handel, and obviously Mozart & all the later "musical revolutions". It's lots of fun for musicologists, while for us --the diehard opera fans-- it's an OK musical trip to "how it was before Handel"-land. With that being said, do not count on me to come back for more. ;)

The music on ancient instruments is soothing for your ears. If that's what you like, then Les Talens Lyriques and Christophe Rousset are what you will be happy with. They are famous in this genre and they had their share of (deserving) ovation in the end. Not all Talens were there last night: for this opera Rousset included 13 musicians [which is apparently 5 too many for this opera, according to my neighbor last night].

 Christophe Rousset and his bow-tie [tacky?;)]

Among the soloists, I liked the most  Véronique Gens. Her voice is plain, voluminous, sane and simply beautiful. She pulled her best-of Donna Elvira to portray the rage of betrayed Giunone. Brava!

Always reliable and singing beautifully:  Véronique Gens (Giunone)

The voice of Sophie Karthäuser is somewhat smaller than Véronique's, which is perfectly OK for her role in this opera. After listening to her Ilia (Idomeneo) and now Calisto, I believe this repertoire is like tailored for her. Cool singing and fully invested in her acting part. Brava Sophie!

On the rise: a fine success for Sophie Karthäuser (Calisto)

Lawrence Zazzo is steadily good and occasionally brilliant. At the beginning of Act-2 he had his brilliant moment. Yours Truly tried in vain to understand the purpose of the flashy tattoo on his chest. "Eppur si muove!" -- yeah, we like Galileo too, but what's the point? 

 Lawrence Zazzo and his Galileo, ahem Endimione

The other singers were all very good too: Marie-Claude Chappuis and Milena Storti in particular, as well as the basses Graeme Broadbent and Giovanni Battista Parodi.

 The best actor last night: Graeme Boradbent (Sylvano) [6-pack burn is priceless ;)]

So if all the singers were so good why the show was only OKish?

 Macha Makeieff

It's the directing that I found particularly bad. Hold on! The decors were classy, fancy, and occasionally even Lady-Gaga-like freaky [c.f. the demons of jealousy]. It's full of saturated colors, but it never becomes kitschy.  Great stuff!

 4 nymphs including Calisto, Diana (Marie-Claude Chappuis) and Giunione (Véronique Gens)

What I'm pointing my finger at is to what Mme Makeieff did to bring this libretto to the level of theater. There I don't see much. She again pulls her tricks and uses the stuffed animals to define the persons and their contact with the story: [a] the scene with Calisto cuddling the stuffed dog looks particularly creepy, [b] a guy cuddling a stuffed sheep (sic!) is her way to introduce a shepherd -- even if we could perfectly follow the story without knowing that he was a shepherd, [c] there is a tall stuffed peacock to define the godly world of Juno's. That attitude goes beyond stuffed animals and you constantly have a feeling that the decorative aspects of the show were given far more attention than the dramatic/theatrical content of it.
To that add a somewhat puritanic attitude to love. The episode between Giove and Endimione, as well as between Diana and Calisto, could have been made much more delicately,  playing around the sexual ambiguities; that would also bring this opera closer to the times we live in -- at least that's not a taboo any more. Anything sexual is very implicit, even the satyrs in this show are sexless (although they menace with their tails in the final part of the show). The impression I get is that Mme. Makeieff wanted to please the most the old gals from the front rows...

In the end only a few boos for Macha Makeieff that were quickly drowned by the applauses. I guess we reached the sad point at which the quantity of boos is proportional to the quality of the director's work in a given show.

For a good show directed by Macha Makeieff see  "Moscow Cheryomushki", recently presented in Lyon.

 Parodi, Karthauser, Chappuis, Gens, Cassi


  1. I've seen the show too. And I don't agree with a few things.
    It was a stuffed wolf. Calisto is the daughter of the wolf Lycaon.
    I don't agree that the satyrs are sexless. They touch themselves constantly from the first moment on and not only in the final part of the show. For example in the second act when Linfea sings that she wants a man they come tail forward and jump on her to rape her. Every time they're on stage they comment the main action by touching themselves in a sexual way.
    Okay the show is not as sexually explicit as David Allen's production or as bizarre as Aldona Farrugia's (Pane and Silvano are conjoined twins) but it is good to see something a bit more elegant for a change in our modern world where when there is sexual explicitness it is often over used and over the top. Also the director chose to set the opera in the 20ies/30ies and at that time there were still a lot of taboo.
    It is true that Christophe Rousset has chosen 13 musicians and that they are too many but René Jacobs chose 20. The opera was written for a small opera house and nowadays our opera houses are much bigger so a lot of conductors hesitate to hire as few musicians as at Cavalli's time.

    Pardon my English if I have made a few mistakes.

  2. Thanks for your note :)
    I'm guilty as charged re your explanation about the wolf. HOWEVER (ha!) is that reference really necessary? Isn't there any other way to convey that information to a spectator instead of fetching a creepy stuffed wolf?

    Yes, the satyrs did jiggle their tails a little but that's so 19th century in terms of audacity ;)

    I didn't mean to say it was necessary to make it sexually explicit by exhibiting more nudity. It was possible to make it more sexually charged by innuendos. With a text so rich, the possibilities were countless, and she opted to make a show pretty but boring.

    Don't get me wrong! I don't regret to have seen it. It's just that I regret that so much more could have been done with this witty libretto.