Eliogabalo: when too much is just too much

I went to see Francesco Cavalli’s Eliogabalo as produced by the Gotham Chamber Opera at The Box and I wrote about it for Bachtrack.

Describing its new production of Francesco Cavalli’s 1668 opera Eliogabalo, the Gotham Chamber Opera compares the exploits of titular depraved Roman emperor Heliogabalus to Salome. There’s an obvious mistake here: Salome
is an opera; Heliogabalus was a historical figure. While the Gotham
Chamber Opera has done a valuable service by bringing this compelling,
interesting opera onstage, the production unfortunately makes the same
mistake, confusing a few historical accounts with the very different
aesthetic of 17th-century Venetian opera.

You can read the whole thing here. (In my discussion of the intersection of seventeenth-century orchestration and burlesque, I introduced the Bachtrack editorial staff to the phrase “bump it with a trumpet.”) This production didn’t work because it was one-note while seventeenth-century Venetian operas are heterogeneous. Venetian opera is closely associated with Carnival (in that respect the timing of this production was really bad–sorry, you go through one Viennese Holy Week of Faust, Parsifal, and Dialogues of the Carmelites and the idea sticks with you forever). But Eliogabalo is something far more interesting than a celebration of excess.

I thought of Calixto Bieito’s fantastic production of Platée, which I saw last summer at the Staatsoper Stuttgart (and didn’t blog about, sorry). It’s set in a nightclub, though not in the environmental theater sense of The Box. The Studio 54-like club (a good modernization of the ancien régime) provides an ostensible freedom for an outsider like Platée. But the hierarchy of court life is always lurking just beneath the surface, and the outsiders never escape their eventual punishment. Eliogabalo never leveraged its similar setting with this kind of dramatic intent.

The singing was fine but most of it was not very stylish. New York doesn’t attract enough people with extensive experience with this music. (The Wooster Group’s utterly bonkers sci-fi La Didone mashup was better sung, actually, and far more compelling.) The US’s cavernous opera houses and conservative programs confine all but the most famous Baroque operas to boutique outfits like Gotham, but unfortunately based on this production they lack the expertise to present these works to their best advantage. Gotham is, usually, a very strong company, and I hope they’ll try another early Venetian opera soon with better results.

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