From The New York Times...
Sunday, March 10, 2013
From The New York Times...
From The New York Times...
Heliogabalus was a third-century teenage Roman emperor who dressed in women’s clothes and prostituted himself in the imperial palace, appointed an all-female senate and put a dancer in charge of the praetorian guard. According to the historian Lampridius, he traveled with 600 chariots “full of his male prostitutes, bawds, harlots and lusty partners in depravity” and referred to one blond charioteer, Hierocles, as his husband. He also married and divorced five women. When he was 18 and had ruled for nearly four years, he was murdered by his own guard.
The Box is a nightclub on the Lower East Side of Manhattan designed to look like a 19th-century vaudeville theater, where waitresses in skimpy white togas deliver Champagne bottles topped with fireworks to patrons who crowd around the small stage for live shows, which begin at 1:30 a.m. On a recent Sunday morning the lineup included a dancer dressed as a music-box ballerina who came to life after snorting cocaine from the blade of her winding key, an acrobat who lifted pieces of furniture with her teeth while stripping and masturbating, and a dancing vagina wielding a sparkly cardboard tongue. An aerialist in black stockings gyrated inside a large hoop suspended above the bar.
“It seems like a wholly appropriate setting,” said Neal Goren, the artistic director of Gotham Chamber Opera, in a recent telephone interview. “If Heliogabalus were alive today, he would either frequent the place or buy it.”
Mr. Goren’s company is putting on a production of Francesco Cavalli’s 1667 opera “Eliogabalo” about this most flamboyant of Roman emperors inside this most flamboyant of New York nightspots. Simon Hammerstein, owner of the Box and grandson of the lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II, said he is always looking to create a theatrical experience “where, when the curtain goes down on an act, you have no idea what is coming up next.” Beginning on Friday — at the unusually early hour of 8 p.m. — that next thing is Baroque opera.
“Eliogabalo” is Cavalli’s last surviving work for the stage. He wrote it with his longtime librettist Aurelio Aureli for the Venetian carnival season of 1668. The plot focuses on the final stages of the emperor’s life, without any reference to his bisexuality. Instead, Cavalli’s Eliogabalo is a proto-Don Giovanni, whose rapacious sexual appetite threatens the opera’s two virtuous couples. In one scene the emperor, dressed in women’s clothes, addresses the prostitutes in his newly appointed senate and leads them in a game of blindfolded groping that is designed to determine their cabinet positions. The opera ends with Eliogabalo’s offstage murder and the felicitous reunion of the couples he had threatened to break up.
Little wonder, then, that Cavalli’s opera was never performed during his lifetime. (It received its first performance in 1999 in Crema, Italy, the composer’s birthplace.) Ellen Rosand, a professor of music at Yale and a specialist in early Venetian opera, said that contemporary audiences would have understood it as an indictment of the corruption of Venice’s own senate.
“I think that was something you could not make fun of in Venice,” Ms. Rosand said, “because their senate was their pride and joy, and there was a large participation of the populace in it.”
Mauro Calcagno, an associate professor of music at Stony Brook University, who prepared the critical edition of “Eliogabalo” used by Gotham Chamber Opera, traces the censorship back to the owners of the theater for which Cavalli worked, the brothers Giovanni Carlo and Vincenzo Grimani, two teenage noblemen. (In 1642, when it was owned by their uncle, Giovanni Grimani, their theater, Santi Giovanni e Paolo, had hosted the premiere of Monteverdi’s “Incoronazione di Poppea.” ) Mr. Calcagno said he suspects that it was their last-minute intervention that led to Cavalli’s dismissal; the firing of the theater’s impresario, Marco Faustini; and the hasty rewriting of the libretto. “Eliogabalo” was staged in 1668 with new music by Giovanni Antonio Boretti, a 27-year-old Roman composer, and a plot with a drastically shortened and sanitized senate scene and a new ending, in which the emperor survives the assassination attempt by the guard, repents and continues to rule with the help of virtuous counsel.
“There was the practice of the broglio at the period, of selling political appointments for money,” Mr. Calcagno said. “For the Venetians to see that, to see senators as prostitutes, especially for the Grimani family, it was too much. To modern audiences, he added, the opera’s appeal lies in the way the sexual and the political mix, and in the resulting psychological turmoil.
“Cavalli writes wonderful music for these couples who are under this constant threat of rape, finding themselves in the opportunity of being close to this powerful guy,” Mr. Calcagno said. “You can really hear what it is like to be under that kind of harassment.”
Musically Cavalli’s “Eliogabalo” belongs to a tradition of recitative-heavy music drama that was then already falling out of fashion. That factor too, Ms. Rosand said, might have led to Cavalli’s replacement by a younger composer who wrote a greater number of fashionable arias into the score. And questions of vice and virtue aside, the opera’s sardonic view of history might have rankled not just noblemen but the wider audience of fun-seeking Venetians.
“In other Venetian operas the comedy is there for delight,” Ms. Rosand said, “and this is perverted. It’s like an anticarnival.”
A perfect fit for the Box, then, where live acts test the balance between the titillating and the repulsive. Gotham Chamber Opera’s production of “Eliogabalo,” directed by James Marvel and conducted by Grant Herreid, will use one of the Box’s aerialists to impersonate an ominous owl. Audience members will be greeted by a live D.J. and a dance performance by members of Company XIV, which its choreographer, Austin McCormick, describes as “androgenous Baroque burlesque.”
The costumes, designed by Mattie Ullrich, will, Mr. Goren said, be “amazing and very sexy.”
“It’s sort of David Bowie with ancient Imperial Roman overtones,” he added. “It’s not a toga production. It’s sexy glam rock.”