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The Roman stain

When a valuable organization commits a misstep, you chalk it up to the inevitable vagaries of producing opera. But when one stumbles as badly as Gotham Chamber Opera did Friday night with Francesco Cavalli’s 1668 Eliogabalo at The Box, it was hard to know whether to feel sad or angry—or both.  

Having attended really first-rate performances by GCO of operas by Handel, Mozart and Haydn, I was pleased the company had chosen to present this rare work by one of Italian opera’s first masters.

But after it was over, I asked myself, “Would anyone who had never seen a Cavalli opera before want to see another one after this?” Except for several outstanding performers, the entire enterprise was about as unfortunate as any I can recall.

A crucial mistake was the choice of a venue decidedly unfriendly to opera and whose ethos cast an unfortunate spell over the production. The Box presents rather lewd contemporary burlesque shows, and unfortunately director James Marvel and assistant director-choreographer Austin McCormick embraced that spirit which overwhelmed the production.

Confused audience members were greeted by black-and-white silent porn loops projected onto a screen on the tiny stage, after which four topless “Baroque Burlesque Performers” (three female and one male) sauntered across the stage, eventually engaging in an extended sequence of ostensibly erotic gymnastics, presumably intended to evoke the decadent court of Eliogabalo. Unfortunately these BBPs kept reappearing, proving particularly distracting during Flavia’s two monologues and Alessandro’s aching first act lament.

That food and drink were served continuously during the performance proved intensely distracting despite the genuinely heroic efforts of the waitstaff to be as unobtrusive as possible. An audience as preoccupied with throwing back wine and scarfing down sliders as paying attention to the opera might recall behavior common in many 17th and 18th century theaters, but the 21st century audience for this Cavalli suffered.

Another bad judgment call was conceiving the production as if it were about the historical Elagabalus rather than the figure Cavalli and his librettist Aurelio Aureli created. For example, while the Roman emperor was believed to have been bisexual and a committed transvestite–if not transsexual–the opera’s title character is instead a malevolent heterosexual Don Giovanni figure who uses his power (aided by not one, but two servants) to manipulate both the females he covets and their lovers. Like the Mozart-da Ponte character, he is singularly unsuccessful during the course of the opera and ends up paying the ultimate price for his anarchic behavior.


By having a heavily made-up, aggressively androgynous Eliogabalo grope a male guard within moments of his entrance, the opera’s focus on the emperor’s obsessive twin-pursuit of Flavia Gemmira and Eritea was clouded, and his donning women’s clothing in the Senate scene ended up looking like everyday behavior rather than a crafty ruse to get close to Flavia.

Eliogabalo’s servants, the old nurse Lenia and his steward Zotico, provide a dark spin on these usually comic archetypes, particularly Lenia whose manipulation of Flavia nearly results in her estrangement from Giuliano. While a few laughs do arise from Lenia and her much younger lover, the none-too-bright Nerbulone, the pair’s primary dramatic function is far from amusing. As their master grows increasingly desperate, they put into motion his (ultimately unsuccessful) plot to rufie Flavia and poison Giuliano.

However, tenor John Easterlin as Lenia and mezzo Daryl Freedman as Zotico were directed to behave so grossly, so obscenely that the crudest humor must have been the goal. While Easterlin had the vocal measure of his role, Freedman bawled grotesquely throughout in a losing attempt to cope with music far too low for her.

However, the production’s nadir was the absolutely inexplicable decision to stage Flavia’s attempted rape and Eliogabalo’s resulting murder, actions meant to occur off-stage. Not only was the scene enacted in lurid slow-motion, it was accompanied by oddly cobbled-together “music”—mostly percussion and nothing at all like Cavalli. Flavia then entered describing the very acts we had just seen making a potentially riveting narrative completely redundant.

Musical matters were somewhat happier though the arrangement of instruments on stage (behind the singers) told a tale. To the far left were the superb theorbists, Grant Herreid (the evening’s musical director) and Daniel Swenberg. On the right were four string players and the harpsichordist (GCO artistic director Neal Goren).

Since the club was far too dark to scan my program, on my way home I was astonished to read that the band consisted of “Baroque Violins/Viola/Cello” since from my faraway vantage point it appeared no one bowed in the baroque style nor did their pallid string sound resemble that of original instruments. Beyond the theorbists, none of the instrumentalists sounded like they had much familiarity with period performance.

The cast seemed well coached in the demanding recitative style in which the score abounds, although diction and pronunciation could be variable. The two most satisfying singers were Emily Grace Righter and Brandon Cedel. As the anguished, morally upright Alessandro, Righter nobly used her shining mezzo to rise above the shenanigans that sometimes surrounded her, although her moving “Misero, cosi và,” the score’s best known piece, was nearly ruined by the risible undulations of the BBPs in the background.

Cedel, who won last Sunday’s National Council Auditions and joins the MET’s Lindeman Young Artist Development Program next season, cavorted winningly as the goofy Nerbulone while singing beautifully with a robust bass-baritone.

Unfortunately, South African countertenor Christopher Ainslie gave a one-note performance of the title role, his bland voice struggling to embody Eliogabalo’s erotic compulsions. Only the suspense of what outrageous get-up he’d be wearing next—from fishnet stockings to a spike-studded black leather jockstrap—made one anticipate each appearance. Although he started off weakly, the other countertenor, Randall Scotting as the ineffectual Giuliano, exhibited a more pleasing voice, as well as a surer grasp of an often elusive style.

If one closed one’s eyes, it might have been difficult to tell which of the three sopranos–Micaëla Oeste as Flavia Gemmira, Susannah Biller as Eritea or Maeve Höglund as Atilia—was singing at any given moment. All offered wan, monochromatic voices that struggled to sharply delineate the noble victim, the wily (if conflicted) opportunist or the shunned second-choice each was playing. Occasionally, their prominent vibratos jarred, particularly Biller’s, most noticeably in the ravishing final quartet which sadly fell flat.

Presumably four mirrored panels and two Lucite boxes constituted the “set design by Carol Bailey” as there was otherwise no set. The distracting costumes by Mattie Ulrich might have served the 1958 Zsa Zsa Gabor vehicle Queen of Outer Space or possibly some lost episode of Star Trek from the 1960s. One very obvious misstep was Atilia’s rather masculine outfit, which made her initial advances on Alessandro unnecessarily confusing.

Normally I would kvetch about the slashing cuts made, but since I started checking my watch at 8:25, I was sadly grateful that nearly an additional hour of music had been excised.

All in all, a very disheartening evening, particularly since New York City gets few chances to experience the riches of Venetian opera. One can only pray that GCO will return to its usual high standard with a planned Monteverdi cycle by choosing a director who more confidently trusts his material and audience and by procuring a musical crew better versed in 17th century performance practice.

For those with a yen for more Cavalli, the Yale Baroque Opera Project presents La Calisto (led by Herreid) on May 4 and 5 at 5:00 PM and both performances are free!

Anyone doing the European festival circuit this summer will want to drop by the south of France in July where the Aix-en-Provence Festival presents Elena from 1659 conducted by Leonardo Garcia Alarcón with a pair of Eastern European leads: the Hungarian soprano Emöke Barath in the title role and Romanian countertenor Valer Barna-Sabadus as Menelao.

If travel isn’t an option, Youtube provides some choice Cavalli options: although it was already posted on this site albeit without any information attached, an audio recording of a splendid 2004 Eliogabalo from Brussels with René Jacobs conducting a very fine cast is available.

After I reviewed a 2011 production of Giasone, La Cieca was kind enough to host my recording (I didn’t record it—I just own it) of a live performance of the lush Raymond Leppard version of L’Ormindo starring The Vicar’s favorite tenor in the title role is still available for downloading.

Cavalli: L’Ormindo
Glyndebourne Festival Opera at BBC Proms
Royal Albert Hall
24 July 1968

Anne Howells — Erisbe
Hanneke van Bork — Sicle
Jane Berbié — Mirinda
Jean Allister — Melide
Isabel Garcisanz — Nerillo
John Wakefield — Ormindo
Peter-Christoph Runge — Amida
Hugues Cuénod — Erice
Federico Davià — Ariadeno
Richard van Allan — Osmando

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Raymond Leppard — conductor

Act One

Act Two

If you’d rather watch rather than just listen to Cavalli, a complete Giasone, his most popular opera during his lifetime, conducted by Jacobs comes from the 1988 Innsbruck Festival.

I also recommend the operas of Antonio Cesti, a particular favorite of mine and Cavalli’s contemporary, whose spin on Semiramide was filmed at the 1987 Innsbruck Festival.

But the absolutely indispensible Cavalli on video is a miracle; long unavailable, a complete Glyndebourne La Calisto has recently turned up. I got a copy several years ago and it’s a gem, particularly for documenting the great Janet Baker at her absolute prime in one (or actually two) of her best roles—and a delightful Ileana Cotrubas in the title role ain’t bad either. Historical authenticity be damned, this is a sublime two hours.

Photos: Richard Termine.

11 comments

  • phoenix says:

    “If one closed one’s eyes, it might have been difficult to tell which of the three sopranos … was singing at any given moment. All offered wan, monochromatic voices that struggled to sharply delineate … ” Alright -- contact the Met immediately. Now we have a vehicle for Susan Bullock, Elza van den Heever and Voigt.

  • Nero Wolfe says:

    May I assume the director and assistant are on Piotr Beczala’s list of people not to work with in the future?

  • m. croche says:

    For example, while the Roman emperor was believed to have been bisexual and a committed transvestite--if not transsexual

    Ah, the passive voice. Believed by whom? It’s been a while since modern historians took the stories of ancient historians at face value. As Mary Beard put it in a recent review “But, of course, hard-headed modern historians have also chosen to “forget”
    Elagabalus simply because his reported misdeeds seem so unbelievable… The most interesting academic studies of the Elagabalan tradition in recent
    years have steered clear of questions of truth or falsehood in the ancient
    accounts of this eccentric emperor… [E]mbracing rather than rejecting the exuberant
    fictionality of the narratives of his reign, modern commentators have
    concentrated instead on the ways that “Elagabalus” (as an imaginative
    construct, rather than a real emperor) exposed the anxieties of Roman culture,
    imperial power and politics.”

    • Ilka Saro says:

      I don’t think that the historical accuracy of the libretto is really the point of the review. But yeah, Elagabalus’ rep seems just a tad doubtful to me. Sometime in my youth, someone repeated this story to me: “Wasn’t Heliogabalus the emperor who enjoyed having elephants pushed off his balcony onto the crowd below because he liked the crunching sound it made when the elephant landed?” When I pointed out that this sounded screwy, I was dismissed as a would-be know-it-all.

      The stories of Elagabalus adventures as a transvestite prostitute may or may not be historical. It’s interesting that promiscuity seems to have been very popular among the Roman aristocracy, but also deplored as “feminine” whether the promiscuity involved women or men. Elagabalus’ scandalous (apocryphal?) promiscuity was compounded by additional details about how it was not “masculine”. “Not only was he promiscuous, he actually [fill in the blank with something effeminate and perverted]“

      • m. croche says:

        Yeah, they’re the sort of stories you spread about predecessors you’ve ousted.

        I did a little reading on medieval Scotland a few years ago, and the lesson that was drilled into me (by writers such as James Fraser and Alex Woolf) was that you don’t read ancient historians to know what happened in the period they described, but to learn about the time in which the historians themselves were writing. In a different field, Stephen Owen applied the same principle to Chinese poetry in “The Making of Early Chinese Poetry” -- pointing out the fictive natures of early (4th- to 7th-century) literary histories of Chinese poetry but underscoring what practical and ideological purposes those fictions served.

        The main biographical sources for Elagabalus’ life show up, if I recall correctly, about a century after his brief existence. It is in this context that Mary Beard’s remarks about present-day Elagabalus studies makes sense.

  • wonneweibchen says:

    For the latest relevant musings on the subject, the new edition of the classic, Roman Homosexuality by Craig Williams is a good place to start…whatever the “truth” of the excesses of the upper classes during the Roman Empire, the “no-no” was always considered to be the position taken….and, of course, in au courant academic conversation, the idea of gay, straight, bi-sexual, etc. does not really define relations in the ancient world, as we have learned from many scholars, and well articulated by Foucault, these are all post-Christian definitions…

    • Ilka Saro says:

      and that post-Christian definition is expanded to include the christian idea that the “depravity” sexual behavior of ancient nobles all points in the direction of chaos, that what is needed is carefully prescribed sexual continence etc. Finally, in the thinking of the last few centuries, you get to the point where anything outside the tiny scope of permissible sexual interaction is total depravity, proof of the end of the world. All very christian.

  • Ilka Saro says:

    “you don’t read ancient historians to know what happened in the period they described, but to learn about the time in which the historians themselves were writing”

    I believe Jonathan Miller said something very similar, but I can only paraphrase: That you could look at photographs of Shakespeare productions that claimed to offer authentic Elizabethan or Jacobean performance practice, and you could name the year they were done by whatever was considered “authentic” at that time.

  • willym says:

    Many thanks for the review and for the great links. I bought the L’Ormindo when it was first released on Argo and loved it from the first groove to the last. In moves, downsizing and divesting the discs disappeared (not that I have the equipment to play them on as that has long disappeared) many thanks for making a performance available.

    And as for the Calisto -- well I rank the performance I saw of it at Glyndebourne, the first year they presented it, as one of those great, and unexpected, nights at the opera. Baker, Cotrobas, Hugues Cuenod, James Bowman -- and that miraculous production by Peter Hall and John Bury . I know its fashionable to belittle Leppard’s work on these early piece but his orchestrations and arrangements are remarkable and it is possible to see that this was very much a collaborative work between arranger-producer-singers. I knew it had been televised but was never able to get my hands on a copy. Many thanks for uploading it. You are allowing to relive one of those unforgettable evenings.

  • Dongsok says:

    I want to say that, overall, I agree with this review. For example, I really didn’t understand what the idea of the preshow dancing was. Two-thirds of it could have been cut, and you’d more than get the point. And what truly didn’t work for me, except in bits and pieces, was what I consider the most wonderful thing about Cavalli, the mercurial scene to scene changes of mood, from serious, to raucously funny, to tragic, to heart rending. Often it would take two or three lines, before I would get the “idea” of a scene.

    There is one thing I would really like to “correct”, however. The baroque string players are, actually, highly distinguished and well-known players in their field (except for the violist). The two violinists and the cellist specialize in baroque performance practice. Did it not occur to the reviewer that the Music Director, Grant Herreid, who gets a fine mention, actually hired the strings? And I know he hired them for the very reason that he thinks they know what they are doing. So I don’t know if the reviewer is a violinist, but I think he or she is just dead wrong about them.

    And, however it came across, all should be aware that the string players are playing from the very back of an acoustically unflattering and noisy space, in a formation that does not allow good ensemble, and everyone is amplified with pickups on the strings, which does not help the players sound good.

  • Leon Dupuis says:

    I bought tickets for Friday’s performance from classictic, but apparently they sold me a ticket they didn’t have. If anyone is looking to get rid of a ticket, please let me know. THANKS!!!