Munich First Performance on 9th May 2005 at the Nationaltheater
David Alden: Comical Beginning and Bitter End. Thoughts on La Calisto
Like so many 17th century operas, La Calisto also contains that fantastic admixture of comical and serious elements, which so incredibly fascinates me. They are jolly, almost vulgar musical comedies, which were par for the course back in those days, but with far deeper meaning than one might think at first glance, especially as the different aspects, levels and colors keep changing. Francesco Cavalli was composing for a paying audience, and that's why he moved opera somewhat farther away from early Monteverdian intellect toward pure entertainment. But blended with the wonderful mythological satire in La Calisto, this vaudeville about gods, humans and animals, there lies hidden a very bitter view of human life and the relationships between humans and the gods. There are two relationships between one divine and one human creature each in this opera, and in both cases the relationship ends tragically for the human.
The gods have lost all their role model function, and have fallen deeply. The head god's dysfunctional family reveals this in pitiless clarity. Giove is constantly cheating on his wife Giunine, and while his son Mercurio diligently helps him with these shenanigans, his daughter Diana suffers along with her mother under this bad example. Giove is nothing more than a womanizer, and not even a good one. He descends to earth, allegedly to imbue nature with new force, but in actual fact he is just looking for new nymphs to fool around with. He plays with his creatures rather than helping them. In the course of this, he runs into Calisto, whom he literally makes into a "star". Her father Lykaon has just lost a war against the gods and now has to wander through the forest transformed into a wolf. Calisto also lives in the woods. She is a nymph of the goddess Diana, but she is something special. She is different from the other nymphs. We can feel that she is very much alone, and she is opposed to men and any kind of relationship with them. Only the goddess Diana can really love her. These are very Sapphic, lesbian emotions that Calisto feels. And she does have the makings of a star - destiny, eternity and nature in the prologue recognize that quality early on in the prologue.
Just as Giove lies to his wife and everyone else to be able to follow his carnal lusts unrestrictedly, the life of his daughter Diana as a chaste goddess is also an outright lie. Diana suffers under a severe father complex; her father's affairs and the resultant suffering of her mother make it impossible for her to establish normal contacts with humans. She has a series of lovers, but she has to keep these relationships secret and hidden, and she can never really surrender to love, but rather has to cut every relationship short somehow to maintain her status as a chaste goddess. She's like a little girl playing with human toys, and this situation makes her bitter and unhappy. One of her series of lovers is Endimione, whom she turns away as cold as the moon, once she's seduced him. Only when he sleeps can she do as she pleases with him. The minute he wakes up she gets nervous and insecure. Her erotic impulses are in constant conflict with her shame. Almost like a vampire or an angel of death she finally brings about Endimione's end. She plunges him into eternal sleep, because this is the only way she can go on loving him.
The life of her brother Mercurio is also studded with lies - they are the daily bread in his function as the messenger of his father Giove. He is somewhat reminiscent of Loge, the way he constantly lies and hoodwinks to help his father find new girls, but he doesn't derive any pleasure from this job. He feels uncomfortable doing it, and unlike his father, he is never happy when he has to go down to earth among humans. He is intelligent, but over the course of the years - he is considerably older than his father - he has become highly perverse.
Like his children, Giove has also systematically destroyed his wife. All that's left for Giunione is the role of the jealous spouse, the classic satiric-comical loser. But even when she can't do anything against her husband's machinations, at least she can punish his bedmates, and so she takes vengeance on Calisto by transforming her into a she-bear. After that in her final aria Giunione bewails the tragic fate of many woman, who wait for their husbands at home, while the boys are out having a good time, only to arrive dead tired when they finally return to their conjugal bed. What started as a cliché takes on greater profundity here at the end.
The god Pane is also unlucky in love; his encounters with his adored Diana remind us of the spats between Oberon and Titania in A Midsummer Night's Dream, just as the moods of the two works occasionally resemble one another. The whole world is somehow out of whack and in great disorder, there are all kinds of erotic tensions among the characters, and any number of negative urges between men and women. Pane, the forest god Silvano and their woodland companions - half human, half animal - are very much alone and live out their urges, if there is no comfortable way to go about it, perforce in perverse ways. This is why at the end they are all set to torture Endimione bestially to death. Here, too, we have this tipping over from merry pranks to bitterness: Pane, the rejected lover, seems occasionally comical, but also tragic, almost suicidal, and in his misery and fury he also becomes a mortal danger.
Finally we experience a totally insane relationship between the old nymph Linfea and Satirino, the little satyr. Linfea may initially say no to this young half-goat who adores her, but she is hot, she wants a man, she wants sex, and she wants it now, and then she just takes whatever she can get - better this one than no-one. But she is cruelly punished for that. Satirino has the same animalistic urges as his friends Pane and Silvano. Linfea can expect no love from him.
La Calisto is a play about unfulfilled relationships. For hardly anyone in this opera is there a happy ending, and certainly not for the two humans among all the gods and creatures of nature. They must pay dearly for their short, tempestuous dallying with the gods: Endimione must sleep for all eternity and serve Diana as a love-toy, and Calisto may be granted a brief glimpse of her future as a constellation in the sky, but she has to keep returning to earth and end her life as a she-bear. Her final trio with Giove and Mercurio has a bitter, almost tragic quality.
English Translation by Donald Arthur
© Bavarian State Opera