When this was first released in 1995, I thought it was the finest recording of a Baroque opera I’d ever heard. Since then there have been many others as good, but this one remains positively superb, making the case for an otherwise unknown work, bringing to the fore all of its colors, wit, bawdiness, and complications. Following it with the texts you realize what a fine dramatist the librettist was and how superbly Cavalli sets his words; indeed, this work, premiered in 1651-52, need not take a back seat to Monteverdi’s extant operas. (He was one of Monteverdi’s disciples.) There are more overt aria types than in Monteverdi, but still plenty of that arioso-into-aria style that is so engaging. Furthermore, Cavalli’s tunes are almost catchy. It’s a gem, and this performance is just about perfect.
There’s plenty of gender-bending and lots of overt sexual references in this opera. The plot concerns Jove’s love for Calisto, who is a follower of Diana, and the former’s attempt to seduce Calisto while disguised as the latter, abetted by Mercury. Juno is jealous; Endymion also loves Diana, and so on. Jove-as-Diana manages to seduce Calisto sonically, by singing in falsetto–and in Marcello Lippi we have a bass with a rich sound worthy of the grandest and horniest of gods, but one whose falsetto is developed and expressive enough to convince Calisto while also entertaining us. Calisto is sung by Maria Bayo, and she hasn’t impressed so much since this recording was released; her pure, vibrato-free sound is right on the money and she gets inside the innocent but seducible character with great ingenuity.
Countertenor Graham Pushee is a lovesick Endymion who makes us care for this sincere if misdirected character; Alessandra Mantovani’s Juno is wildly self-righteous and mellifluous; tenor Barry Banks makes two cameo appearances–one in the prologue and the other as Pan–and is superb as both; and the always-far-out Dominique Visse juices up the proceedings in two roles as well. Simon Keenlyside’s Mercury is wise and snide. Since this recording was made he has gone on to become world-famous, and deservedly so. René Jacobs and his band turn this into a great, sharp drama, beautiful to listen to and endlessly appealing. Don’t miss it–it’s a great work and this is a great performance. [6/14/2003]