“Eliogabalo” at Gotham Chamber Opera

New York City, Gotham Chamber Opera, 2013 Season
Opera performed in two acts by Aurelio Aureli.
Music by Francesco Cavalli
Flavia Gemmira MICAËLA OESTE
Instrumental Ensemble, Vocal Ensemble, and Burlesque Performers
Conductor Neal Goren
Music director Grant Herreid
Stage director James Marvel
Set Design Carol Bailey
Costume Design Mattie Ullrich
Lighting Design Clifton Taylor
Choreographer/Assistant Director Austin McCormick
New York City, 23 March 2013

Since its first performances in 2001, the U.S. stage premiere of Mozart’s Il Sogno di Scipione, Gotham Chamber Opera has grabbed and held New York City’s attention with a mix of seldom-heard repertory, innovative stagings, expert musicianship, attractive young singers — and sex appeal, indicating a healthy acknowledgment that opera is and always has been a form of show business.  Gotham’s productions remain among the hottest tickets in town, and they include one world premiere (Nico Muhly’s Dark Sisters, in 2011), as well as U.S. premieres of works by Martinu, Sutermeister, Handel, Respighi, and Montsalvatge. Stage directors have included Mark Morris, Christopher Alden, Basil Twist, Moisés Kaufman, and Diane Paulus, whose production of Haydn’s Il Mondo della Luna garnered worldwide press in 2009: it was presented in the Hayden Planetarium of the American Museum of Natural History. Tellingly, New York City Opera, struggling after catastrophic management crises, is now more likely to emulate Gotham’s model than that of its former neighbor at Lincoln Center, the Metropolitan Opera. And by the way, the Met won’t see a Muhly work until next season (Two Boys).
Performed before sold-out houses, Gotham’s spring offering, Francesco Cavalli’s Eliogabalo, is representative of the company’s approach. Written in 1668, this opera by the composer of La Calisto was rejected by Venetian censors and didn’t receive its world premiere until 1999, in Crema; Gotham’s was the first professional production in the U.S. Centered on court intrigue, corruption, and decadence in Ancient Rome, the plot resembles (and in some ways exceeds) Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea, and it invites a sexy staging. Gotham went further, choosing as a venue the Box, an ornate yet dilapidated former ballroom downtown, converted into a cabaret known for raunchy performance art.
On March 23, it quickly became clear that the audiences for opera and “New Burlesque” don’t speak quite the same language. Electronic club music blared before and after the opera, and during intermission. Staff continued serving drinks and food during the performance, which shocked some operagoers (one man stormed out during the pre-show, which featured four bare-breasted dancers, three of them female); there was quite a lot of talking and shushing going on, too, and sight lines in some parts of the room were awkward at best. Overpriced “standing room” tickets left dozens of spectators struggling to observe the performance while standing in the next room (where the performance was inaudible, but for a closed-circuit television with piped-in sound). Those who opted to peep through a doorway had to clear a path for artists making their entrances and exits.
Yet when things clicked, the overall atmosphere recalled an era before Wagner, when reverent silence wasn’t the norm during an opera. The look and feel of the old ballroom are just right for all kinds of repertory. For those who could get into the spirit (by far the majority of the audience), this was fun, and presumably future productions in this venue will run more smoothly. Maintaining a vibrant energy and dramatic thrust, Gotham’s artistic director, Neal Goren, conducted from the harpsichord, while this production’s musical director, Grant Herreid, played first theorbo in an ensemble of seven instrumentalists. Cavalli’s score relies heavily on dialogue-heavy recitative, with few arias or duets lasting longer than a couple of minutes, and it’s inherently theatrical — especially the way these artists performed it. The pre-Baroque musical language at times recalls that of late-period Monteverdi, and two duets strongly resemble Poppea’s “Pur ti miro.” Seated onstage behind the singers, the musicians became bemused observers of the action, and the neck of Herreid’s theorbo jutted out like an outsize phallus.
Cavalli wrote the title role for soprano voice, presumably a castrato — which the historical Eliogabalo himself was, by his own hand. The role was taken here by a countertenor; in one extended scene, Eliogabalo dresses as a woman, and the cast includes two mezzos playing men and one tenor playing a woman: the conventions of Early Music in modern theaters blended seamlessly with the demands of the plot. Even given all the gender-bending and the lurid goings-on, stage director James Marvel sometimes had difficulty in judging when to rein in the decadence: even in Ancient Rome, less can be more. The four dancers were overused and frequently stole focus from the central action, as did a talented aerialist (Brian Joseph Ferree) during the climactic poisoning scene. The Emperor’s lusty duenna (a role much like Poppea’s Arnalta) is already degraded enough when she’s played by a tenor, without obliging her to fall down quite so much, to say nothing of requiring her to give her young lover a handjob. But overall Marvel drew effective parallels between the Roman story and the world of glam rock, where deviance was the norm; he brought the action close to home, too, making a runway of a long table in the center of the room.
As the petulant Eliogabalo, South African countertenor Christopher Ainslie provided an exquisite voice and a zesty acting performance — along with the physique of an underwear model, which costume designer Mattie Ullrich exploited almost gleefully. Whereas the historical emperor was evidently bisexual, Aureli’s libretto depicts him as straight; he spends the opera in pursuit of the beautiful Flavia Gemmira, meltingly sung here by the lissome soprano Micaëla Oeste, much to the consternation of his fiancée (and rape victim) Eritea (mellifluous soprano Susanna Biller, a standout in Gotham’s revival of Il Sogno di Scipione last season).
The women’s lovers, Alessandro (who will become the Emperor Alessandro Severo, tenderly sung by mezzo Emily Grace Righter) and Giuliano (countertenor Randall Scotting) aren’t happy with Eliogabalo, either, and much of the plot focuses on what exactly they can do to stop him. Once he’s dead at the hands of the Praetorian guards, however, the score lingers too long on the triumphant lovers, who are, unfortunately, deadly dull as characters, and lovely (and unfamiliar) though their music may be, one wished Goren and Herreid had made a few cuts. More effective was the improvised music for Eliogabalo’s death, a scene that Cavalli and Aureli neglected to write but that contemporary audiences will find absolutely necessary. While the singers mimed the action, strings scratched out an atonal hum during Eliogabalo’s attempted rape of Flavia; a drumbeat accompanied the assassination.
Marvel mined terrific comedy from the interplay between the duenna and her opportunistic boy-toy, given flavorful interpretations by tenor John Easterlin and baritone Brandon Cedel, respectively. In another travesty role, mezzo Daryl Freedman plumbed the depths of her range as Zotico, the emperor’s giddily masochistic counselor. Carol Bailey’s set design made use of mirrors — both those already in the auditorium and additional ones onstage — to compel us to reflect on ourselves as much as the writhing Romans.