According to a fourth-century biography by Aelius Lampridius, the Roman emperor Heliogabalus travelled with 600 chariots “full of his male prostitutes, bawds, harlots and lusty partners in depravity”. The emperor was, in other words, an ideal subject for 17th-century Venetian opera, and the composer Francesco Cavalli saw to it that he became one. But for reasons having to do with its drama or its music or both, a projected staging of Cavalli’s opera was shelved; another opera with the libretto toned down and music by someone else was given instead. Where Cavalli has Eliogabalo (as he is known in the opera) murdered by soldiers in the course of an attempted rape, in the later opera he supposedly repents.
Eliogabalo finally had its world premiere in 2004 at Brussels’ La Monnaie theatre, and it has taken to the stage anew in all its bawdy glory for its North American premiere by the Aspen Opera Theater Center of the Aspen Music Festival and School. Ever since Glyndebourne’s productions, going back to the 1960s, conducted by Raymond Leppard, Cavalli’s operas have been among the most popular from the baroque. They have an earthy directness that speaks to modern audiences, even if the baroque opera revival has since unearthed other operas by composers such as Alessandro Scarlatti that, if less salacious, offer comparable or greater musical rewards. Cavalli’s operas have nothing if not fast-paced variety: along with sex and violence, cross-dressing and comedy are stirred into the mélange.
Aspen’s enjoyable updated production, directed by Edward Berkeley in the intimate Wheeler Opera House, which dates from the silver boom, struck an apt mix between the serious and the comic. The convoluted plot focuses on two aristocratic couples: the prefect Giuliano and Eritea, and Alessandro (Eliogabalo’s cousin) and Flavia (Giuliano’s sister). Eritea is a past conquest of Eliogabalo, while Flavia is a potential one. In an effective trio late in the opera, the women persuade a reluctant Giuliano to murder Eliogabalo, with Eritea relating the torment she experienced and Flavia the torment she fears.
Heading an able young cast, Cecilia Hall, a mezzo, sang attractively as Eliogabalo, but try as she might she never made him seem dastardly. Christin Wismann’s bright soprano served Alessandro’s music nicely, and a couple of the comic characters excelled: the tenor Alex Mansouri, as the ageing female servant Lenia, looking hilarious with fake boobs and an outlandish wig, and the bass David Keck as Nerbulone, whose task it is to procure women for Eliogabalo. They all looked great in Marina Reti’s colourful costumes, not least Eliogabalo when he donned a woman’s metallic gold gown for an appearance before the all-female senate he appointed. Arthur Rotch’s handsome set depicted a stone arch with a pastel-coloured room behind.
Jane Glover, an expert in this repertoire, presided authoritatively from the harpsichord over a nine-person ensemble of strings, plucked instruments and two harpsichords. Another theory for why Eliogabalo was passed over is that it did not give sufficient prominence to arias, which in the 1660s were becoming the rage. But Glover made the succession of recitative with short arias and other numbers sound fluent and aptly proportioned.
Eliogabalo is just the tip of Aspen’s substantial array of offerings, but it adds lustre to the eighth and final week of the festival’s 85th season of music-making in the Rocky Mountains, the 10th under the conductor David Zinman’s informed leadership.
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