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.