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Francesco CAVALLI (1602-1676)
La Calisto - Opera in a Prologue and Two Acts [119:59]
Realisation: Raymond Leppard
Teresa Kubiak (soprano), Giunone
Ugo Trama (bass), Giove
Owen Brannigan (bass), Silvano
Marjorie Biggar (mezzo-soprano), La Natura
Peter Gottlieb (baritone), Mercurio
Janet Baker (mezzo-soprano), Diana
James Bowman (counter-tenor), Endimione
Hugues CuÚnod (tenor), Linfea
Janet Hughes (soprano), Satirino
Enid Hartle (mezzo-soprano), L’EternitÓ
Ileana Cotrubas (soprano), Calisto
Federico DaviÓ (bass), Pane
Teresa Cahill (soprano), Il Destino
Isla Brodie (soprano), Eco
Glyndebourne Festival Chorus
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Raymond Leppard
rec. 10-13 August 1971, Organ Room, Glyndebourne, UK
ELOQUENCE 4829400 [2 CDs: 119: 59]

Seventeenth century Venice needed a steady supply of new operas. The genre was not that old, but the Most Serene Republic soon had half a dozen commercial opera houses to fill. In 1651 Francesco Cavalli and his librettist Faustini scored a hit with the insatiable Venetian opera public with a tale from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The metamorphosis is suffered by the nymph Calisto, who is rejected by the goddess Diana, turned into a bear by an angry Juno and back into a human by Jupiter, who finally sets her among the constellations (as Ursa Minor). In fact, in La Calisto, Faustini skilfully joins two classical legends: Jupiter’s seduction of Diana’s acolyte Calisto (Jupiter impersonates Diana in order to trick Calisto into accepting his advances), and Diana’s own romance with the shepherd Endymion. The plot bounds along, blending pathos and humour (the latter not least from the confusion caused by the cross-dressing of Jupiter).

Raymond Leppard’s revival of La Calisto for Glyndebourne, preserved in this famous recording, was thought to be probably its first since that 1651 first run of performances. Allowing for the fact that it would have sounded very different three hundred and twenty years earlier, one has to wonder, for all the fabled skill of some Italian singers of the era, whether it could have been as well performed in Venice as in a rural Sussex opera house in high summer 1971. Here are three great singers caught at the height of their powers, in the ideal Glyndebourne conditions and with total absorption in music new to them, following upon an intensive period of rehearsal and stage performances. Everyone sounds completely inside their roles, as well as at home in the renaissance style (doubtless thanks to Leppard’s coaching). Above all, they all believe completely in the piece, for they were directed by Peter Hall, and had heard how much it delighted the immaculately attired audience.

The recording is dominated by two remarkable voices, both with a basic timbre which has an exquisite note of pathos built in, and the skill to deploy their gift to ideal effect. Ileana Cotrubas, as Calisto, shows herself to be an ideal stylist for this musical period, even if she later became more famous as Verdi’s Violetta. She sounds as lovely as Jupiter found Calisto to be, and she sounds young, which helps if you are playing a nymph and an acolyte. Janet Baker’s Diana (and Jupiter when disguised as Diana) provides as much of her histrionic range as the part (or parts) call for, which is quite a lot. She can be angry with Calisto, but always within the bounds of the period style, as well as adoring, melting with love for Endymion, infinitely touching in the range of colour and dynamic she commands. James Bowman’s counter-tenor sounds as lovesick as someone given to sleeping beneath the moon might well be, and indeed he opens Act 2 with a Hymn to the moon to rival Rusalka’s exquisite control of tone and line. What casting Glyndebourne could then command – even the smaller but key role of Juno is taken by Teresa Kubiak. Hugues CuÚnod does a nice witty turn as the ageing nymph Linfea, who eventually gets a satyr or two to show her what she has been missing. The basses are good and weighty, if not quite in the league of their female colleagues. The LPO strings play well of course for Leppard, whose editing work (there are some lush string harmonies) was subjected to purist criticism, but which sounds to me an impressive way to reintroduce a remarkable piece to a twentieth-century audience. Those Venetians were sophisticated pleasure-seekers (and condemned as such by churchmen), and so is a Glyndebourne audience.

No libretto is provided and alas we are used to that omission in inexpensive reissues of operas. But in fact it is an artistically fraudulent practice, for in the baroque era the operatic work was that of a poet and a musician, and often in that order of importance. The libretto was printed for use in the theatre or at home, like any work of literature. So reference works now still write about “Faustino and Cavalli’s La Calisto”. The musical setting reflected the poetic style and verse forms, and the vocal style of monody, even as developed by Cavalli’s time, helped keep the text audible. In a real sense there is no such thing, except as shorthand, as ‘Cavalli’s La Calisto’.

Leppard’s own plot synopsis is included, though it could have been more helpful if there were links in his telling of the tale to the tracked points on the CDs. Sometimes libretti can be found online, but not always, and in this case the full original printed text will not correspond to the textual decisions Leppard made in realising his freely adapted version. So, unless you have fluent Italian, you cannot actually appreciate what Janet Baker and her colleagues can do with the text in terms of skilful vocal acting. And since Baker sings both Diana and Jupiter (a bass role when not pretending to be Diana), whenever Jupiter is in disguise, you might suffer some unintended confusion without a libretto to see who is singing when, in addition to the confusion the plot is designed to generate. The Eloquence label is rightly regarded as one of the most valuable of classical reissue series, for the importance of the recordings, in many genres, that it preserves. But with its important ‘Baroque opera’ series still growing, I wish they would reconsider, perhaps putting a pdf of the original issue’s libretto on their website?

Nearly fifty years on from this recording we might expect a different approach to baroque opera, and Rene Jacobs’s Harmonia Mundi recording has 3 CDs and runs 45 minutes longer than Leppard’s realisation. But Leppard’s version retains its validity, and not only as an historical artefact. For once heard, it is hard to live without the singing of Janet Baker, James Bowman and Ileana Cotrubas. Decca’s vintage recording still sounds very good, the one or two distance and echo effects nicely judged, including the long ‘fade-out’ at the very end as Calisto takes her eternal place among the stars.

Roy Westbrook

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