Many works of art are ahead of their time and have to wait their day, and Francesco Cavalli's "La Calisto" lingered in obscurity longer than most. An 11-performance flop in 1651, it entered the modern repertory, and stayed, in 1970, when conductor Raymond Leppard revived it for the great mezzo Janet Baker.
Something about the atmosphere, which recalls that of Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream," and the elegantly lascivious nature of the gods-and-mortals plot, appeals to contemporary taste. Cavalli's music is alluring: recitative passes seamlessly into ariosos and duets of great melodic charm and poignancy, or into rowdier music in a more popular dance-like idiom.
The story links two classical myths -- the love of the shepherd Endymion for Diana, goddess of chastity, and the lust of Jupiter for the nymph Calisto. To woo Calisto, Jupiter disguises himself as Diana, thereby offering a talented mezzo-soprano a captivating double role as the real and the false goddess. Some of the subsidiary roles are crossdressed too, so sexual confusion and double entendre abound, but there is also much tender longing for the unattainable, and Calisto winds up as a constellation (the Great Bear!). Mirth comes at the expense of the all-too attainable.
Leppard's arrangement is very much of his time rather than of Cavalli's. The luscious string writing becomes enervating; each melody is lovingly placed on a bed of bright pink, tooth-rotting, cotton candy, and this makes it difficult to perform the music with the vigorous rhythmic chomp that it requires. It is also a text-driven score, and unfortunately the New England Conservatory chose to perform a woeful English translation that lies awkwardly across the rhythms of the music. The accent is always falling on the wrong sylla-bu-bu-bu-bu-le.
"La Calisto" is an ensemble work -- a gift to opera-training programs everywhere -- and this was a lively group performance with everyone in the same picture. But some singers offered genuine vocal value. The most sumptuous voice last night was that of alto Claudia Huckle leading off the allegorical prologue. Soprano Laura Stuart was exquisite in tone and bearing as Calisto, and countertenor Jason Abrams brought uncommon beauty of timbre and acting skill to Endymion. Paula Murrihy's warm mezzo sounded lovely as both Dianas, and she was delightful in her imposture of a man disguised as a goddess.
Cavalli's was a theatre of spectacle. The Conservatory substituted intelligence. Caleb Wertenbaker's beautiful set was a cyclorama with the semi-transparent texture of rice paper, and some of the action was shadowplay behind it; Michael Klima's lighting was superb. Illusion was not assisted when we could actually see the spangly costumes; even the god Pan, bare to the waist, had been sprayed with glitter. Marc Astafan's staging was smart, tender-hearted, sometimes suavely erotic (a jacuzzi episode with "Diana" and Calisto), but also crude and bawdy when it needed to be.
The orchestral playing was excellent but overripe. Conductor Christopher Larkin, best-known locally for his work in 20th-century operas, is not an early-music specialist, but his experienced helpfulness with young singers was an asset, and so was his sense of the theater. "La Calisto" cast its moonbeam spell.
By Cavalli, presented by the New England Conservatory Opera Theatre
At: the Cutler Majestic Theatre, last night (repeats with alternating casts this afternoon, tonight, and tomorrow afternoon)