Vertical Player Repertory Takes 'La Calisto' to the Banks of the Gowanus Canal

Saturday, July 09, 2011 - 12:00 AM

Any opera company that decides to stage a production near the banks of the Gowanus Canal, the infamous industrial waterway in Brooklyn, can expect some potential hazards. And so when a steady rain arrived on Friday, an opening performance of Cavalli’s La Calisto in an outdoor courtyard of Proteus Gowanus was wisely postponed.

When the production does finally open on Saturday night, it will be a chance to experience Judith Barnes’s Vertical Player Repertory, an opera company known for such offbeat, site-specific works as Puccini’s Il Tabarro on a retired oil tanker in Red Hook. Here, the company places the action in a former 1900 box factory that today is an art gallery and library.

While Peter Brook’s A Magic Flute, playing at Lincoln Center Festival, makes use of a minimal amount of props and effects (amounting mainly to a handful of bamboo poles and some simple sleight of hand), librettist and poet Giovanni Faustini concocted the libretto for Cavalli’s Ovid-based La Calisto to make full use of special effects and mechanics that were made available to the production by Venice’s Teatro San Apollinare. Unlike certain Broadway shows with record-setting budgets, however, there is substance to the style of Cavalli’s 1651 work: Faustini’s gods are humanistically multifaceted, interacting with humans in grave tones before lightly bantering among fellow immortals. A dramatic plot is balanced out with commedia dell’arte elements and Cavalli’s music proves why the composer was touted as the next Monteverdi and foreshadows the classical era.

However, the forward-thinking nature of this collaboration proved to also be the work’s downfall upon its initial performances (during which Faustini died). Opening night resulted in a half-full house, and box office receipts for the remainder of the run were slashed by another half. In a theater estimated to contain 400 seats, most nights they were lucky to break 100 ticket-buyers.

Of course, operas being unpopular upon first hearing often become classics, and the last century has been kind to Calisto (minus, generally, the excess of machines and effects). Ileana Cortubas and Janet Baker starred in a London production from 1973 as Calisto and Diana, and René Jacobs helmed a poetically celestial production for La Monnaie that is a welcome addition to any opera on DVD collection.

In the now, Vertical Player Repertory's concept of opera under the stars is particularly apt here, given the astronomic outcome to this god-on-human love triangle. The production comes replete with a period orchestra led by harpsichordist Jennifer Peterson and starring several bright new singers—notably talent-to-watch Marcy Richardson as Diana and L’Eternita. With 41 operas to his name, there’s plenty of Cavalli to mine, but here’s a good start.

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