Solid singing, rollicking fun

Ignoti Dei Opera affirms power of Cavalli's `La Calisto'


September 08, 2004|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

With an endless stream of ingratiating tunes, a typically convoluted plot drawn from mythology, and enough cross-dressing antics to confuse even Dame Edna, Francesco Cavalli's La Calisto ranks among the finest gems of early opera. Although not exactly a smash when it was unveiled in Venice in 1651, it proved to be a masterful contribution to the development of a genre then still in its childhood.

The work's lasting power received remarkable affirmation over the weekend from a newcomer to the cultural scene.

Ignoti Dei Opera (the name comes from the motto of the first commercial opera company) is the brainchild of recent Peabody Institute alum Tim Nelson. The ensemble was founded specifically to explore the early chapters of opera history. By combining scholarly elements (well-researched, original source materials and period instruments, for example) with up-to-date approaches to staging, the company promises to be a lively presence.

Just how lively was demonstrated by the performance of La Calisto Friday night at the Theatre Project. The roughly three-hour opera breezed by, thanks to an engaging young cast, skilled orchestra, fluid set design and propulsive direction.

Nelson's troupe of mostly Peabody-related singers (current and former students) seemed to relish the convoluted plot, which finds Jove taking the form of Diana in an attempt to seduce Calisto, a virginal mortal; Jove's wife Juno seeking revenge on her philandering husband; the real Diana fighting determined admirers and her own urges; and a young satyr trying to woo a vacillating nymph.

Ryan de Ryke, in a standout performance, sang the role of Jove with impressive power and color, shifting effectively (and amusingly) from his natural baritone to falsetto when, as the faux Diana, he donned a slinky gown that Ginger might have flaunted on Gilligan's Island. As Calisto, Bonnie McNaughton sang sweetly, tellingly. Robert Maril, in the drag role of the nymph Linfea, offered a bright voice, lively phrasing and great gams. As the lascivious satyr, countertenor Peter Thoresen produced an appropriately wild sound and cavorted with abandon.

There were solid contributions from Kristen Dubenion-Smith as the Diana-smitten Enimione, Scott Elliott as the equally Diana-smitten Pan, and Benjamin Park as Pan's sidekick Silvano. The others varied in terms of tone quality and technical solidity, but added to the overall spirit of the proceedings.

Most of the singers could have used better guidance on how to make the Italian text, especially in recitative passages, dance on the tongue; many an "r" went unrolled, many a long line came out monochromatically.

Adam Pearl, providing a stylish foundation at the harpsichord, cued the accomplished ensemble of baroque instruments. With a few stairs, a patch of turf and some atmospheric lighting, Kel Millionie's minimalist scenic design worked neatly. The projected titles contained some cheeky translations (and an awful lot of spelling and grammatical errors).

Ignoti Dei Opera, which debuted last winter, is next planning a summer institute of early opera, involving training for singers from around the country and another full production.

Such activities should nicely complement the area's longstanding period instrument organization, Pro Musica Rara, and also Opera Vivente, which has its first period instrument production (a Handel work) scheduled later this season. For fans of early music - and folks who could use an introduction to the riches of this repertoire - it looks like a renaissance.

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