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Sunday, March 10, 2013

Opera Preview: Eliogabalo

Gotham Chamber Opera goes for baroque.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Medal of the Roman emperor  Heliogabalus.
Collection of The Louvre, Paris. 
In recent seasons, Gotham Chamber Opera has established itself as an advocate of lesser known operas of the classical period. With its new production of Eliogabalo, the final and most controversial opera from the pen of composer Francesco Cavalli, it stakes a claim to the music of the century before.

The renewed interest in Cavalli, (an Italian composer whose operas grew in the fertile earth first tilled by Claudio Monteverdi) has brought his operas to the attention of New Yorkers in recent years. For some reason, they play in unusual spaces. In 2011, Vertical Player Repertory presented La Calisto in the back yard of the Phoenix arts space hard by the Gowanus Canal. Later that same year, Opera Omnia’s staging of Giasone sailed across the cramped stage of Le Poisson Rouge.

For  Eliogabalo, Gotham Chamber Opera picked The Box, a Chrystie Street space dedicated to burlesque performance. The production includes elements from that world, including a warm-up DJ set and scandalous, (and scantily clad) dancers. As a result, tickets are limited and highly expensive.

Eliogabalo is based on the true story of the four-year reign of Heliogabalus (218 A.D.-222 A.D.) who took the throne at age fourteen. The imperial teen quickly established a reputation for decadence and excess, even by the loose moral standards of Late Imperial Rome. He is described in Sir Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire as one of the most depraved rulers of the Third Century:

"A long train of concubines, and a rapid succession of wives, among whom was a vestal virgin, ravished by force from her sacred asylum, were insufficient to satisfy the impotence of his passions. The master of the Roman world affected to copy the manners and dress of the female sex, preferring the distaff to the sceptre, and dishonored the principal dignities of the empire by distributing them among his numerous lovers; one of whom was publicly invested with the title and authority of the emperor's, or, as he more properly styled himself, the empress's husband."

The Praetorian Guard assassinated the young would-be god four years into his reign.

Cavalli’s opera was deemed so controversial that it was withdrawn and replaced (by another opera on the same subject) shortly fter its 1668 premiere. It depicts the trials of young lovers under the perpetual threat of execution from a mad, sexually ambiguous Emperor interested mainly in non-consensual sex, religion (with himself as the supreme deity) and the loins of his favorite charioteer.

It also includes some composer’s most advanced writing for the voice, supported by delicate orchestration supporting elaborate vocal lines. Cavalli also made further advances in the use of accompanied dialogue to convey information to the audience. These performances mark the first United States performances by a professional company.

Eliogabalo opens March 15 at The Box. For more information visit GothamChamberOpera.org.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.