Thursday, 1 December 2016

Cavalli - Eliogabalo (Paris, 2016)

Francesco Cavalli - Eliogabalo

L'Opéra de Paris, 2016

Leonardo García Alarcón, Thomas Jolly, Franco Fagioli, Paul Groves, Nadine Sierra, Valer Barna-Sabadus, Elin Rombo, Mariana Flores, Matthew Newlin, Emiliano Gonzalez Toro, Scott Conner

Culturebox - October 2016

You wouldn't think it to look at it today in Thomas Jolly's production for the Paris Opera, but Cavalli's opera Eliogabalo was considered "old-fashioned" back in 1667 and consequently never performed until it was rediscovered in 1999. It's true that Monteverdi had pretty much set the standard for a Roman ruler involved in a twisted love affair that threatens the stability of the empire back in 1643 with The Coronation of Poppea, but ironically, stories of cruel kings who thwart lovers' unions for his own twisted desires would continue to be a staple of 18th century opera seria. Even Mozart's Don Giovanni owes much to the convention, and if there's any opera that comes close to Mozart's reinvention of the genre, it's this bold "old-fashioned" work by Cavalli.

The Emperor Eliogabalo (based on the Syrian-born Elagabalus, emperor of Rome from 218 at the age of fourteen until his death in 222 AD) is a special kind of monster. Eliogabalo here has an all-female Senate in the Capitol so that he could control them and use the Senate like a harem (although in real-life the emperor's tastes were supposedly inclined more towards men). Thomas Jolly's production directs this particular scene in the opera with real flair, the gender-bending Eliogabalo even presenting himself as an extravagantly made-up woman when he goes to the Capitol. But Jolly doesn't go overboard in the manner of the camp countertenor fest of Silviu Purcărete 2012 Opéra National de Lorraine production of Vinci's Artaserse. He keeps it stylised, but still manages to capture the dangerous allure of Eliogabalo's power and his abuse of it.

That's just one aspect of Eliogabalo's character, one that shows that he is sexually perverse and won't let anyone stand in his way when he sets his sights on a woman he wants. The main part of the conflict that drives the opera then is the emperor's determination to marry Gemmira. Gemmira is already promised to Alessandro (Severus Alexander, who would succeed Elagabalus), who has just returned to Rome after restoring order to a revolt within the Pretorian guard. Despite being warmly welcomed, Gemmira warns Alessandro that Eliogabalo is suspicious of the respect that the Senate and people have for him.

Gemmira is also the sister of Giuliano, who is upset that the Emperor has seduced his beloved Eritea. Having heard Etirea demand marriage from the emperor as a way to restore her honour, Giuliano blames Eritea for the betrayal, not realising that Eliogabalo has no intention of marrying her. Like his relationship with the law - when he breaks a law it is to honour it - a marriage vow means nothing to the emperor. Eliogabalo's advisors warn him that he is playing with fire, since Giuliano is the commander of the army and it would be dangerous to make an adversary of him.

Do you think Eliogabalo cares? Determined to seduce and (if necessary) marry Gemmira, he plans to introduce her into his all-female Senate. He pushes another woman, Atila, Alessandro's way, hoping to create a division and dispute between the lovers. As for Giuliano, well, the good old-fashioned poison drink should sort out that problem for him. Eliogabalo is wonderfully constructed in this way. Twisted but utterly believable for the dark schemes and plotting that are enacted, and all the more gripping for it. What really makes Cavalli's work exceptional however is his musical colour and characterisation for this intriguing conflict of personalities, emotions and motivations.

There are other colourful characters like Nerbalone - who could well be almost a prototype Leporello for Don Giovanni - who accepts the love of Lenia, a grotesque old rich woman (played by a man of course) who advises Eliogabalo. The origins of much of the conventions of opera seria can also be seen to develop from this work, but even if that originally goes back to Monteverdi and L'incoronazione di Poppea, Cavalli develops harmony and musical colour, with arias and ariosos that are not lengthy or extravagant, but do show what the human voice is capable of doing in a dramatic context. Particularly the castrati.

If there were any justice in the opera world, countertenors like Franco Fagioli would be feted and revered as superstars in the same way as castrati like Senesino and Farinelli once were. Fashions have changed and nasty operations are no longer required, but thankfully we have singers who can really make something of these roles. Cavalli gives the perfect musical setting for the quality of the voice to shine, but he has created a gourmet character in Eliogabalo and a tasty dramatic construction for the countertenor to get his teeth into, and Fagioli's performance has real bite. The rest of the roles are no leftovers with only Paul Groves's Alessandro coming across as a little stale, but Alessandro does have a lot of dry recitative to work with. (Not sure there's any justification for these culinary metaphors, but hey...) Nadine Sierra's Etirea is impassioned and agonised, Valer Barna-Sabadus strong in the other countertenor role of Guliano and there's a wonderful turn from Emiliano Gonzalez Toro as the lusty Lenia.

At 34, Thomas Jolly is already making a name for himself as a director with adventurous Shakespeare productions in France. Directing his first opera in Paris at the Palais Garnier, he's clearly in touch with the spirit and intent of Cavalli, bringing all the qualities of the work to life. The touches of humour are all there amidst the dark scheming and imperious declamation, and the extravagant camp is present but reined in on the side of grandeur with occasional deranged flourishes. Underneath it all however is always the underlying sentiment of love and heartbreak that is the result of Eliogabalo's actions on the individual. Taking its lead from Leonardo García Alarcón's lively and dynamic arrangements of the score, the colours, moods and tone are perfectly balanced in the stage presentation, with bold costumes, minimal sets and effective use of crossing light beams to suggest grander structures and themes.

Links: Paris Opera, Culturebox