A Selective Guide to the Arts in Los Angeles

Ribald is the single word I would choose to describe Pacific Opera Project’s latest undertaking, a reworking of the 1651 opera La Calisto by Francesco Cavalli. While Baroque operas like this one often include some comic elements (meant to attract and amuse the less sophisticated merchant class), Director Josh Shaw has gone all in on the idea of La Calisto as a comedy. It is bawdy, risqué, slapstick and goofy, submerging the serious tone that is inherent in early Baroque opera. The approach is not necessarily wrong, just different than what you might expect, and for many, this will be a good thing.

The opera combines two myths — Jupiter’s seduction of Calisto (from Ovid) and Diana’s dalliance with Endymion.  The production begins with some tongue-in-cheek credits and explanations projected on a screen before opening onto the so-called “cave of eternity.” A better description might be a post-apocalyptic romper room. Two plastic towers adorned with crude phallus drawings embrace a slide, which characters use to descend from the upper level to the lower level of the stage. A large bin of brightly colored balls provides a soft place for hard landings. The whole set is covered with graffiti. I was amused by one bit over the bathroom door, “Per buon tempo, chiama Diana” (For a good time, call Diana). Two nymphs on swings, sweetly singing, launch us into the action.

The “men” (they are actually all gods of one sort or another) are uniformly ridiculous. Jupiter/Jove is played by Ryan Thorn as a superhero in a Batman-like costume, while the satyrs vary from cross-dressing queens to goats sporting huge erections that they wield like weapons. Endymion, played by Bryan Pollock, is a big, strapping fellow, but when he opens his mouth to sing, we hear the high-pitched feminized strains of the castrato (eunuch). While it comes off as comical here, it was actually the norm in Baroque opera for the heroic roles to be played by castrati. The women, mostly goddesses and nymphs, come off largely as virtuous and pure, if slightly annoyed by the men’s naughtiness. Calisto, played by Claire Averill, has a pure, strong voice that fills the intimate, old venue, the Highland Park Ebell Club.

One aspect of the production that is played straight is Cavalli’s music. Music Director Stephen Karr plays a harpsichord, which serves as continuo through much of the opera. He is joined by six other string musicians, some on period instruments like the long-necked theorbo. The playing, like most of the singing, is performed at a professional level.

Just as for the company’s recent Carmen, this so-called pop-up opera has tables for sale close to the stage ($100 for a table of four, including wine and food) as well as individual seats behind. Due to the many visual erection jokes and raunchy, slangy subtitles, I wouldn’t advise bringing the kids, but as a lighthearted adult romp, it succeeds in bringing the pompousness of Baroque opera back down to earth.

—David Maurer, Culture Spot LA

For more information about Pacific Opera Project, visit www.pacificoperaproject.com.