Henry Purcell's oft-recorded opera, "Dido and Aeneas", is in fact the only one he ever composed, and renowned Baroque specialist René Jacobs turns out to be an ideal interpreter of this seminal 17th-century musical allegory. Not even an hour in length, the opera is an ideal introduction to this period of classical music, as Purcell melds a tragic love story with Shakespearean-level theatricality and surprising comedy elements. This 2006 reissue of a 1998 performance doesn't have quite the dramatic vibrancy of Emmanuelle Haïm's 2004 six-instrument ensemble, but it compensates with scope and polish…
Cavalli was the leading composer of opera in Venice during the 1650s, and Calisto (which premiered in November 1651) finds him at the height of his powers. Giovanni Faustini’s mythologically based libretto for Calisto tells the story of the amorous trials of two couples: Calisto, a female devotee of the goddess Diana, and her pursuer, Jove; and Diana herself, and the shepherd Endymion. As a follower of Diana, Calisto has rejected carnal relations with men; as a result, in order to win her affection, Jove disguises himself as Diana, and Calisto willingly follows him in that guise to enjoy carnal pleasure. Calisto’s actions invoke the wrath of both Diana herself, and of Jove’s wife Juno. According to the myth, Calisto is transformed into a bear, and will later ascend to the firmament as the constellation Ursa Minor. Diana, in Faustini’s version, finally admits to loving Endymion; they remain devoted to each other, but their relationship remains unconsummated.
Christopher Hogwood has found himself a dream cast here, with even the smallest roles taken by big names. There are a couple of surprises along the way, such as the underage First Sailor (sung by a slightly quavery treble) and the cross-dressing Sorceress, here taken by a bass. Still David Thomas cackles and machinates with the best of them, so don't let that put you off.
At under an hour this mini-masterpiece should be in every opera-lover's collection. There are scores of versions available but I tend to favour those with a Dido of really starry vocal quality given that her torments lie at the heart of the opera and all other considerations are secondary: Purcell and his librettist Nathum Tate make little of Aeneas's psychology and the other roles are all supplementary, reflecting upon Dido's plight, even to the extent of some suggesting that the Sorceress is her alter ego.