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.

Micaëla Oeste with Baroque Burlesque Performers © Richard Termine
Micaëla Oeste with Baroque Burlesque Performers
© Richard Termine

Salome may be an all-out assault on the senses but most 17th-century Venetian operas are something less consistent and quirkier. Tragic, comic, and satiric plot elements are mixed with gleeful abandon. The plots are drawn from mythological or historical sources, often in unexpected combinations. An eloquent lament can be followed by downright dirty humor. The singing flickers between aria and recitative, responding to the demands of the text with pungent chromaticism. Compared to later opera, it’s not spectacular music, particularly considering the minimal orchestra of a few strings, harpsichord, and theorboes. But the genre can achieve great dramatic concentration and intensity, and when properly told is riveting. Francesco Cavalli, the operatic heir to Monteverdi, was this era’s most prolific master.

For Eliogabalo, the Gotham Chamber Opera chose the unusual venue of The Box, a club on the Lower East Side. While the retro decor is fun and it was nice to be so close to the performers – who sometimes brought the action to a narrow runway that bisected the audience – the space’s tables presented challenging sight lines even to those in the best seats, the voices suffered from a lack of space to resonate, and the constant delivery of drinks was distracting despite the waitstaff’s best efforts.

The choice of theater was also thematic. Eliogabalo, according James Marvel’s production, is about an emperor’s libido given absolute power. The plot, set to a libretto by Aurelio Aureli, recalls Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea: determined emperor Eliogabalo wants to marry a woman, and he wants her now, but his various loves – first Eritea, later Flavia Gemmira – turn out to be otherwise attached. Eritea loves Giuliano, while Flavia prefers Alessandro. Alessandro is the moral center of the piece, reluctant to kill Eliogabalo even though he certainly deserves it. The supporting characters include three servants, the duo Lenia and Zotico and the rather dumb Nerbulone. Justice triumphs in the end, tyranny is overthrown, and happy weddings happen. Meanwhile we get various typical Baroque opera plot twists such as an all-female senate and a misplaced sleeping potion.

The show is introduced by a quartet of scantily-clad burlesque performers who slowly gyrate and stretch (this being public and not court opera, none have the opportunity to bump it with a trumpet). They reappear throughout the opera, often at inopportune times such as laments. The tiny stage leaves little space for movement. The singers’ costumes are somewhere between David Bowie in the Ziggy Stardust era and an adult-rated video game, including a great supply of sequins, bustiers, and fishnet stockings. While Eliogabalo in the opera is an emperor with a healthy sex drive, his actions never suggest the omnivorous, crazed monster on display here, and his personality seems to dictate everything about the other characters (with the exception of Alessandro, notable for his comparative modesty). This maximal provocation quickly became tiresome, and failed to tell us anything more about the characters than had the entire cast been wearing bedsheet togas. Almost an hour of music was cut, but the proceedings still dragged due to the monotonously provocative tone.

The musical performance was acceptable and suggested that this is, in fact, a really fabulous score, with several very sexy duets and some moments of impressive pathos and gravity as well. Music director Grant Herreid led from the theorbo, and the continuo group was tastefully deployed. The string players were credited as playing with Baroque instruments, but their anemic tone had little of the color of period strings. The singing was also stylistically variable, accurate but failing to make expressive use of the text and tending towards stiffness. Vocal ornamentation was spotty and not always idiomatic. Ideally, this music should sound like the characters are composing it on the spot, but here it always sounded studied.

As Alessandro, Emily Grace Righter almost walked away with the evening, her plummy mezzo conveying her character’s anguish and conviction, and as the opera’s voice of morality she was spared the production’s greatest indignities. In the title role, countertenor Christopher Ainslie was game for anything and sang with a thin yet assertive voice, but he was more petulant than frightening, and when you begin the opera in fishnets and underwear there’s really nowhere to go. Micaëla Oeste’s Flavia Germmira looked like a blonde outcast from the Met’s recent Parsifal and sang with Flower Maiden-like sweetness, while Susannah Biller as Eritea looked far more aggressive and sounded more or less the same. As Giuliano, Randall Scotting had a more pleasant tone than Ainslie. As servant sidekick Lenia, cross-dressing tenor John Easterlin attempted to be an over-the-top scene-stealer, while bass-baritone Brandon Cedel as servant Nerbulone was far funnier, and figured out to use the music to dramatic effect while still sounding good.

It is always a pleasure to hear the music of Cavalli, one of the most unjustly neglected of all opera composers. However, this production didn’t do his gifts justice.