Roman emperor at age 14, he alienated his public by worshipping his own god above Jupiter. Although married five times including to the heretofore off-limits Vestal Virgin, he patronized hundreds of prostitutes while also showering political favors on his male lovers.

Ambivalent about his gender to the degree that he may have had himself castrated, legend has it that he prostituted himself (dressed as a woman) in the royal palace. These outrages and more resulted in his assassination at eighteen thanks to the intervention of his maternal grandmother, the same woman whose machinations had won him the throne in the first place.

Next week he—or at least his operatic incarnation—arrives in New York City. Thanks to the always provocative Gotham Chamber Opera, Eliogabalo by Francesco Cavalli has its US professional stage premiere with South African countertenor Christopher Ainslie in the title role beginning a six-performance run at The Box in the East Village on March 15.

Composed to a libretto by Aurelio Aureli for the 1668 Carnival season at Venice’s Teatro Grimani, it was unexpectedly dropped and replaced by Giovanni Antonio Boretti’s opera of the same name to a much revised libretto also by Aureli. The score sat in the composer’s archive at the Biblioteca Marciana in Venice until its world premiere over 330 years later in Crema, the composer’s birthplace.

One imagines a huge scandal should have erupted over the cancelation of a new work by Italy’s best known opera composer, but almost no information has come to light other than Aureli’s intriguing preface to the Boretti libretto:

I had, unexpectedly, and in response to the vigorous order of someone I had to obey, to hastily finish this Eliogabalo [Boretti’s], legitimate product of my pen, completely different in manner and action from the other one [Cavalli’s].

There has been speculation that the cancelation was due to the public’s changing musical taste; Cavalli remained committed to putting dramatic recitative first over the increasing popularity of arias composed to show off the singer. However, it seems much more likely that Eliogabalo’s unorthodox protagonist was the real reason.

Although not quite the unparalleled libertine of history, Cavalli’s anti-hero remains an unbridled sexual predator whose dangerous misbehavior culminates in his (off-stage) murder, a virtually unprecedented action in 17th century opera. As regicide remained a problematic operatic subject into the 19th century, it’s not surprising that Boretti’s protagonist instead lives on having repented his sins.

Cavalli/Aureli pits two pairs of lovers—Giuliano and Eritea, Alessandro and Flavia—against the rapacious appetites of the emperor as he seeks to wrest each lady from her lover, both of whom are politically entangled with Eliogabalo. The first act ends with a delicious scene of the emperor’s appointment of an all-female senate, which he invades (in drag) in order to get closer to Flavia. His death arises not from political unrest or the threatened actions of the ineffectual Giuliano and Alessandro but because Flavia cries for help as Eliogabolo attempts to rape her; the screams rouse the Praetorian guards who dispatch him.

Eliogabalo’s womanizing is aided by a striking pair of co-conspirators, his old nurse Lenia (an archetype always sung by a tenor, here John Easterlin, was who was so impressive as the Scrivener in last season’s Khovanshchina at the Met) and Zotico, historically one of Eliobagalo’s male lovers but in Cavalli his procuring steward, portrayed by mezzo Darryl Freedman. Surprisingly, these henchmen, normally comic figures, are also killed off-stage by an outraged populace.

Last week GCO graciously invited me to sit in on an early rehearsal and to meet Artistic Director Neal Goren and Eliogabalo’s director James Marvel and musical director Grant Herried. As the company had never before ventured into 17th century opera (beyond Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas in its early days), I was curious about why Gotham had chosen to do this Cavalli now.

In addition to a long-range plan to produce Monteverdi’s three great stage works, Goren has long been interested in Cavalli, particularly since Robin Guarino’s 2006 production of La Calisto at Juilliard. So he approached longtime GCO supporter Ellen Rosand, editorial director of Bärenreiter’s 14-volume Cavalli edition and author of the magisterial Opera in Seventeenth-Century Venice: Creation of a Genre.

Giasone having been revived just last season by Opera Omnia at Le Poisson Rouge, Rosand brushed aside another Calisto or perhaps L’Ormindo and instead suggested that of the composer’s 27 extant operas Eliogabalo would be the ideal candidate; also a new critical edition by Mauro Calcagno has been prepared for the Bärenreiter series.

As Cavalli’s operas are so text-focused, it might have made sense to mount the work in English, but commissioning a translation can prove expensive, so Aureli’s original has been retained (with projected English titles). However, Marvel’s goal for his staging is that a singer’s actions must be so clear and direct that an audience member will understand the dramatic and emotional import even without knowing the exact words being sung. I watched a run-through of a wrenching scene between Eritea (Susannah Biller) and Giuliano (Randall Scotting) which suggested he may be well on his way to achieving just that.

Cavalli’s works were mostly forgotten for centuries until the revelatory revival of L’Ormindo at the 1967 Glyndebourne Festival in a realization by conductor Raymond Leppard, followed by Leppard’s La Calisto there in 1970. Both were recorded by Argo and introduced many people to the extraordinary delights of post-Monteverdi Venetian opera.

Listening to L’Ormindo borrowed from my local public library when I was in grade school proved a transforming event in my evolution into a lover of 17th and 18th century vocal music. Today, the Leppard realizations may sound anachronistically lush, but I still go back often to those exceptionally beautiful performances.

Unfortunately the L’Ormindo was available on CD for only about five minutes and remains impossible to find, but LP copies do turn up regularly on Ebay.

Instead of Leppard’s sumptuous orchestrations, normally singers are accompanied only by basso continuo, with additional instruments added during ritornelli or sinfonias. A reaction against the Leppardization of Cavalli, possibly influenced by Alan Curtis’s spare edition of Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea, brought about a trend toward smaller-scaled performances.

Herried is a veteran of many Cavalli performances going back to the 1980s including Eliogabalo’s US premiere at the 2007 Aspen Festival conducted by Jane Glover, author of an important study of the composer.  For the GCO Eliogabalo he will lead from the theorbo a band of just six string instruments (bowed or plucked) and harpsichord (played by Goren) placed behind the singers.

Although others, including René Jacobs’s well known recordings and stage productions (including a lavish 2004 Eliogabalo in Brussels and Innsbruck), have added cornets, trumpets, recorders and percussion, his instrumentation dovetails with the production team’s goal of creating a gratifyingly intimate experience before an audience of fewer than 250. Less happily, a decision was also made to dramatically cut the work from nearly three hours to around two.

Gotham has performed in unusual spaces before—Diane Paulus’s 2010 vision of Haydn’s ll Mondo della Luna performed at the American Museum of Natural History, for example—so its choice of The Box as the venue for Eliogabalo is no surprise. An eighty-year-old former sign factory on Chrystie Street, it was recently renovated and opened in 2006 as a trendy venue for racy modern burlesque. When the audience arrives next week, it will be greeted by a DJ spinning a mash-up of Cavalli and contemporary music.

Marvel explained that the space’s edgy East Village spirit will inform the aesthetic of the production set in the indeterminate late 20th/early 21st century with costumes invoking a punk glamour. Yet based on the bare bones rehearsal I witnessed, the direction will hew quite closely (and traditionally) to the text. Herried emphasized that Cavalli’s operas, called dramma per musica or dramma musicale, aspire to an ideal of music nearly subordinate to the words, an emphasis harkening back to the sung drama envisioned at the origins of opera by the Florentine Camerata.

For many, the term “baroque opera” often proves mightily confusing as more than 150 years of music gets tucked under that label. Cavalli’s works couldn’t be more different from Handel opera seria (no da capo arias!) or French tragédie lyrique. And these Venetian operas often prove very accessible. At the heart, they are about complex characters vividly declaiming a text to a continuo accompaniment.

Yet often this recitative breaks into a more expansive aria-like structure, most memorably in the form of a lament.

A similar moment occurs in what may be the only commercially recorded excerpt from Eliogabalo— “Misero, cosi và” from 1984, fifteen years before its world premiere. The scene for Alessandro is transposed here for tenor but will be sung in Gotham’s production by mezzo soprano Emily Righter.

Cavalli’s operas can also include fairly traditional strophic arias…

as well as the occasional ravishing duet…

…although this L’Ormindo excerpt is trumped by the smashingly sensuous pairing of Sandrine Piau and Anne-Sofie von Otter in Diana and Endimione’s duet from La Calisto on von Otter’s new Sogno Barocco CD.

For those wanting to do some preparatory listening (or are unable to attend Eliogabalo), I might recommend Les Paladins’s entrancing L’Ormindo, much different from the older Leppard version but lovely and touching.

For me, Jacobs’s first recorded encounter with Cavalli—Xerse—remains his most appealing although this delicious work has been out of print for a long while.

The opera also includes one of the earliest settings of “Ombra mai fu” (best known in Handel’s version).

The best of the newer Cavalli discoveries on CD is La Sfera Armoniosa’s charming La Rosinda on Ludi Musici.

On DVD, Herbert Wernicke’s celebrated La Calisto (conducted by Jacobs) remains a classic production, despite some rough singing here and there.

La Didone does not rank among my favorite works, but Les Arts Florissants’s recent first venture into Cavalli is an outstanding performance, particularly the Didone of Anna Bonitatibus and the Iarba of Xavier Sabata.

Not only baroque fetishists but all adventurous New York operagoers will want to seize this opportunity to experience a rare and important work by one whom Donald Jay Grout has called “the first great popular composer of opera.”

Photos: Richard Termine