The Box, 189 Chrystie Street, New York; March 19, 2013—Francesco Cavalli (1602-76) was the 17th century’s most popular composer. His Giasone of 1649, a humorous take on the Jason/Medea story (yes, the same Medea who murdered her husband) was played more than a thousand times before the end of the century. Seeing as how he could turn the tale of a child murderer into a comedy, it is no surprise that the story of the third-century Roman Emperor Heliogabalus, a deranged, libidinous teenager who dressed in women’s clothes (he actually wanted to be a woman and attempted self-castration), had a retinue of more than 500 chariots filled with male and female prostitutes, married and divorced five women, referred to one of his charioteers as his husband, appointed an all-female senate (mostly made up of whores), and was, after four years of reigning, murdered by his own guards, would also appeal to him.
In fact, the opera was even too much for permissive 17th century Venice (mostly because of the way the Senate was depicted), and it was never performed in Cavalli’s version—the libretto was rewritten (much of the overt licentiousness is taken out; the emperor is not assassinated; he repents and continues to rule with wisdom)—and music by Giovanni Antonio Boretti was substituted when the work was first seen, in 1668. The opera, as Cavalli conceived it, was premiered in Italy in 1999.
Cavalli skipped over the Emperor’s confusing sexuality and merely presented him as a randy, lunatic Don Giovanni; but there’s more than enough raunchiness and gender-bending in the casting to satisfy the most daring. The version that Neal Goren’s remarkable Gotham Chamber Opera presented more than implied the omni-sexuality, and turned the show into a riotous, musically satisfying event.
Unlike his close contemporary, Monteverdi, Cavalli’s orchestra was small—a handful of strings and continuo players—and Goren and his music director, Grant Herried, stick to that concept, offering clarity and energetic accompaniment, although you might argue with the amplification of the theorbos.
And what sort of an opera-house setting would be correct for the near-nudity, glitzy-beyond-belief costumes (leather studded codpieces, platinum blond wigs for almost everyone, Carol Channing-style silver jackets, by Mattie Ullrich), whips, and perversions needed to make this work come to life? More and more, small companies are going to unconventional venues for their shows, and Goren chose brilliantly: The Box, on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, a burlesque house that seats fewer than 200 people. The wait-staff is scantily clad and after 1:30 am the entertainment features “real” sex shows. The atmosphere is 19th-century funky; a long central table is used by the performers as an extension of the small stage, practically making the audience a part of the show.
Director James Marvel kept things moving at an occasionally frantic pace but certainly never allowed boredom to set in; we could have done without the ever-present quartet of prancing, semi-nude “dancers” (three women and a man) and the need to wink-wink at the audience during some “naughty” bits. Musically, a couple of stars were born: South African countertenor Christopher Ainslie exhibited a big, focused sound in the title role, and acted with just the right mincing petulance; mezzo Emily Grace Righter also was superb in the trouser role of Alessandro, the Emperor’s noble, put-upon cousin (who eventually ascends to the throne). The latter’s lovely, warm, second-act lament, over a figured bass, was a highlight. Micaela Oeste and Susannah Biller as Gemmira and Eritea, respectively—both of whom are pursued by Eliogabalo—sang with bright tone and real trills. And one looks forward to hearing baritone Brandon Cedel, who sang the role of the comic servant/pimp Nerbulone, in more conventional repertoire. The others in the cast impressed as well.
With The Box’s odd acoustics, some wild antics, and more than a half-hour of the score cut, this was not a perfect evening at the opera. But Goren and his company have proved once again that old gifts in new packaging can be very desirable.