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.
A live performance from October 2011 at the Theatre de Caen affords a superb introduction to Cavalli’s rarely performed 1641 opera La Didone. William Christie leads Les Arts Florissants in beautifully realized period style, while French stage actor Clement Hervieu-Leger, in his operatic directorial debut, draws powerful and moving characterizations from a large, versatile cast.
Preceded by a solemn prologue in which Iride admonishes mortals that they should not offend the gods, the story of Cavalli’s Didone comes to life thanks to numerous solo passages of highly varied character and structure, designed both for simple basso continuo support and for a more complex instrumental accompaniment, for five real parts which enjoy some independent moments and which create a diversion from the action or blend in with it in a wholly logical way, intensifying it in a studied, evocative manner. The tragic story of the Carthaginian queen is thus unfolded with extreme attention in a framework that had already been adopted by Monteverdi, of whom Cavalli is considered a worthy successor. In this case it is enlivened and, we might say, given a more popular, direct appeal as it aims to communicate with a public that is gradually expanding. The composer is sincere when he states: ”My spirit has always been far from the printing press: I have preferred to allow my weaknesses to run where fortune takes them with the pen rather than the press.” He identifies with the torment of Didone and with the ”force of nature” (Prunières) that is his and the brilliance of some of his solutions, he creates one of the most tragic, tormented operas of the entire seventeenth century.
It's not necessary to make extravagant claims for Francesco Cavalli's originality to recognize his absolute mastery of the style of mid-17th century Venetian opera perfected by Monteverdi in L'incoronazione di Poppea. The fact that he was able to keep the operatic form so fresh and vital (and most importantly, hugely entertaining) for more than a generation after Monteverdi's death is achievement enough.