When harmonia mundi (hm) launched their hmHeritage series a little less than a year ago, one of the first reissued recordings to attract my attention was that of Francesco Cavalli’s Giasone as interpreted by René Jacobs and his ensemble of instrumentalists and vocalists. At that time I observed that, in the Wikipedia description of this opera as “loosely based on the story of Jason and the golden fleece,” the operative adverb was “loosely.” Giasone was composed for the pre-Lenten carnival in Venice in 1649; and playing fast and loose with the Greek classics was a major sport among carnival revelers, particularly when the “games” were ribald ones.
At the end of this week, harmonia mundi will reissue another Jacobs recording of Cavalli. (The recording is currently available for preorder from Amazon.com.) This time the opera is La Calisto; and, while this opera was first performed in November (November 28, 1651, to be specific), that spirit of carnival ribaldry is just as strong. The source for the libretto may have been a cautionary tale of Jupiter deflowering a chaste follower of Diana and Juno then enacting her revenge; but, by the time it got into Ovid’s Metamorphoses, it was already showing signs of finding entertainment in base behavior. Cavalli’s librettist, Giovanni Faustini, basically followed Ovid’s lead by embellishing the narrative with several subplots, all of which are about noble values being undone by passion. They include Diana herself falling for Endimione (Endymion) and her faithful (but aged and not particularly attractive) follower Linfea getting seduced by a satyr.
This is clearly the sort of narrative that provides ample opportunities for visual gags when mounted on the stage. Obviously, any visual effects are not going to translate into audio very well. However, Jacobs clearly knows where the humor lies; and he knows how to engage devices such as nasal singing and obstreperous use of instrumentation (particularly percussion) to let the listener know when Cavalli is poking the audience in the ribs. Many of these effects arise through Jacobs’ decision to prepare his own performing version of the score, rather than drawing on the scholarly results of some of his contemporaries, such as, in this case, Raymond Leppard (who was instrumental in reviving this opera).
As was the case with the reissue of Giasone, this new recording provides a thorough synopsis but no libretto in the accompanying booklet. Most listeners should not have a problem with this. An event-by-event account of how each of the three acts unfold should be sufficient, particularly since most of the action unfolds through recitative. Where the more reflective arias are concerned, the music speaks for itself without the literal support of the words, particularly to the listener familiar with the rhetorical tropes associated with seventeenth-century Italian music.