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Bawdy and Baroque: Cavalli's 'La Calisto'

Francesco Cavalli reached the apex of his career in Venice, near the middle of the 17th century, and he did it by exploiting both sides of what could be described as the city's split musical personality.

At the time, Venice boasted one of the most vibrant musical communities in Europe. For decades, Venice's church of San Marco had employed a who's who of great composers, including Andrea and Giovanni Gabrieli, and Claudio Monteverdi, as well as Cavalli himself.

Cavalli spent decades at San Marco, starting as a boy soprano and later serving as both an organist and composer. His earliest known compositions were written for the church. And in 1668, when he finally got the job as maestro di cappella, San Marco's senior musician, he kept the position until his death eight years later.

But all the way back in 1639, just one day after his first appointment as an organist at San Marco, Cavalli also made his debut in an entirely different Venetian, musical arena, with the premiere of his first opera. And by that time, Venice's theaters were spawning a far different kind of music than the sacred works heard in its churches.

About three decades earlier, when Monteverdi composed what many consider the first great opera, Orfeo, opera was a strictly a courtly enterprise -- commissioned for the private entertainment of wealthy aristocrats. By the time Cavalli ended his career, he had helped opera with its first great transformation -- from private stages to public theaters, where it served as popular entertainment for a ticket-buying public that couldn't get enough of it.

Cavalli wrote about 30 operas in total, nearly all of them in Venice. They range from somber, mythological dramas, to bawdy, even raunchy comedies that can still seem a bit edgy even in today's theaters. La Calisto, composed in 1651, falls into the latter category. It wasn't among Cavalli's most popular operas during his lifetime, but by now its combination of brief, catchy musical numbers and an overtly sensuous story line has made it one of his most popular compositions.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone brings us Cavalli's La Calisto in a performance from the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, in Paris. The production features the acclaimed baroque ensemble Les Talens Lyriques, led by Christophe Rousset. The vocal stars are soprano Sophie Karthäuser as the nymph Calisto, with bass Giovanni B. Parodi as her all-too-aggressive suitor, the god Jupiter.

See the previous edition of World of Opera or thefull archive.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bruce Scott
Bruce Scott is supervising producer of World of Opera. He also produces NPR's long-running, annual special Chanukah Lights, with Susan Stamberg and Murray Horwitz.