Eliogabalo, Francesco Cavalli’s opera based on the flamboyant and debauched teenage Roman emperor Heliogabalus, was composed for the Venetian Carnival season of 1668 but was never performed and was instead replaced by a homonymous work by Giovanni Antonio Boretti. It had to wait over three centuries to be premiered in 1999 in Crema, Cavalli’s birth place. Experts are divided on the reasons for the programme substitution. Some argue that Cavalli’s musical style had fallen out of fashion by 1668. Others think that his opera was shelved because the libretto contained allusions to Venetian politics that embarrassed the rulers. This seems quite likely when the said libretto includes lines such as: “The more powerful the offender, the smaller his felony. Political reason will seal his pardon”.

The banquet scene © Ruth Walz | DNO
The banquet scene
© Ruth Walz | DNO

There are more of these gems in the text, but on the first night of this new production at the Dutch National Opera the diction of most of the protagonists was too often unclear for its witty sense of repartee to fully come to life. This is unfortunate since this early Baroque work is packed with long recitatives – in between short mezz’arie and ariosi – in which words and expression should weigh more than virtuosity. In the title role, countertenor Franco Fagioli was often unintelligible but he compensated with stylish singing. His impressive leaps between registers hinted at the teenage emperor’s impetuous mind. He gave a strong and vivid characterization that only fell short of the sordid historical character because the librettist had too much fun with the character to make him truly loathsome. 

Nicole Cabell (Gemmira) © Ruth Walz | DNO
Nicole Cabell (Gemmira)
© Ruth Walz | DNO

In his crafty plans of rapes and murders, Eliogabalo is assisted by his butch male lover Zotico (Matthew Newlin) and his perverse wet-nurse Lenia (sung by an irresistibly comic Emiliano Gonzáles Toro). The victims of these schemes are two couples of lovebirds: the young patrician Eritea with the prefect of the guard Giuliano, and the latter’s sister Gemmira with the emperor’s cousin and eventually successor, Alessandro. As Giuliano, Valer Sabadus’ delicate sound did not project well in the modern auditorium of the Dutch National Opera and he made an unlikely Praetorian guard. At times, however, his timbre took on unearthly colours that contrasted well in the duets with the vocally solid Eritea of soprano Kristina Mkhitaryan.

Nicole Cabell’s Gemmira, however, was disappointing. The American soprano sounded stylistically out of place: her diction cloudy, her colour palette limited. As her lover Alessandro, Ed Lyon gave one of the strongest performances of the evening. His articulated diction and use of dynamics expressively painted the character of the noble successor to the throne. He also got to sing some of the best music in his lament “Misero, così va qui fedel t’adorò?” which was a highlight of the evening. Mariana Florès’ light soprano suited the flirtatious character of Atilia, and Scott Conner’s cavernous bass those of the comic Nerbulone and threatening Tiferne.

Franco Fagioli (Eliogabalo) © Ruth Walz | DNO
Franco Fagioli (Eliogabalo)
© Ruth Walz | DNO

The story of Heliogabalus, so full of sex, violence and boundless luxury, would have been suitable for an orgy of movement and colour. The programme notes even promised that his four-year reign ressembled a carnival. Yet Thomas Jolly’s direction was a surprisingly subdued affair. The sets by Thibaut Fack were essentially modulable blocks in front of a black stage in which darkness was only pierced by narrow beams of light. The use of colour was parsimonious: there was the gold in which the emperor bathes or rose petals falling from the ceiling during the banquet scene (far too sparsely to resemble anything like Tadema’s painting). Costumes by Gareth Pugh were similarly stylized (think an Oriental take on the sci-fi world of Frank Herbert’s Dune) and often in shades of grey, like the dervish robes of the women’s senate or the ominous owls of the banquet. The exception was Eliogabalo’s costumes, which alternated between an imperial purple coat and cardinal red robes (he was also, after all, the high priest of the Sun God). The acting direction also often felt static. Luckily, in all this darkness, light came from the pit. Cavalli specialist Leonardo Garcia Alarcón conducted the forces of his Cappella Mediterranea, a very full-sounding period instrument orchestra, with appealing fluidity. His spirited variations in tempi, rhythm and colour carried the action forward.