Grange Park Opera have shown courage. To mount the UK premiere of an opera written by Francesco Cavalli for the 1668 Venice carnival season, but never actually performed then, is brave at the best of times: to do so in the middle of a credit crunch is pushing box office loyalty to the limit. All the more heartening therefore to see a largely full house at the 4 June premiere and to experience a talented cast singing Cavalli's endless streams of arioso as if their lives depended on it. Musical values in this almost completely unknown work were very high, and it was well rehearsed. Production values… well, we shall come to those later.
The plot of Eliogabalo is so absurdly complicated that it almost becomes simple. A young, pleasure-loving emperor misbehaves and treats capriciously all of those who surround him. At his hedonistic court intrigues abound, misunderstandings arise and the path of true love does not run smooth for any of the protagonists. But by the end, Eliogabalo is overthrown and killed and his saintly cousin Alessandro takes his place as emperor. Were there coded allusions here to which the Venetian authorities took exception when they read the original libretto by Aurelio Aureli, and thus banned the work from performance? Possibly so – but we shall never know for sure.
What matters however, if one revives the work nearly 350 years later, is whether or not it still has dramatic and musical cogency. The score undoubtedly has exquisite moments of musical beauty, some interesting duets and ensemble pieces and – at times – some startlingly modern harmonies, all of which are a joy to hear. But does it stack up as a piece of musical theatre? The answer for me, in this production by David Fielding, is only partly so. The pace is fast and furious, the jokes abound, the anachronisms come thick and fast and some of the situations are played for laughs. But it is not until the final act, as the denouement approaches, that the work really starts to hang together, with light and shade to differentiate the characters and with dramatic emotion to underpin their vocal lines. At this stage of the proceedings, the work becomes convincing. At the exposition stage in the first two acts, attention is not always gripped.
Fielding (who designs as well as directs) has created a visually striking all-purpose set, the look and feel of which suggests public baths, public lavatories or a sanatorium. Large off-white tiles abound and there is an old-fashioned lift centre stage for comings and goings. Rows of cubicles and wash basins are pulled on and off stage right and the stage is versatile enough to become a pole dancing joint for the all-female Senate that Eliogabalo appoints (mutterings of 'Berlusconi' in the audience). There are also wide enough apertures for a motorbike and a car to make their appearances onstage. Some of this works, some is simply too fussy for the musical line that it accompanies. Fielding also flirts with directorial clichés for some of the time: for me, he just about gets away with it, but I found myself wondering just why he had felt the need to add so much modern detail to the piece – was it a lack of trust in its inherent viability? I also found it striking that the moments of greatest dramatic and musical power were those when least was actually happening – the 'less is more' syndrome in action.
Cavalli's operas are not necessarily for the faint-hearted or the opera novice. There is a great deal of musical exposition, there is linearity but not always depth. Set piece arias are tiny, always effective when they come but all too quickly gone again. Melodies abound but do not resolve in the way we are used to, and the whole musical discourse has a logic of its time that later opera has largely banished from our receptors. And yet virtually the whole cast performed their roles with passionate conviction that I found wholly compelling. Dynamics were observed and well differentiated, there was legato when required and discreet coloratura in all the right places: changes of tempo mid bar all worked perfectly and amazingly effectively.
For this, pride of place has to go to Christian Curnyn, who seems to have the work's idiom in his bones. The orchestra clearly know him well and observe him intently: grins all round at one or two minor mishaps, but basically a truly rounded performance that brought out the richness of Cavalli's score (in this new performing edition by Peter Foster). The last time I heard Curnyn at Grange Park was for a far less happy Figaro, when communication between stage and pit was sadly lacking. But for Eliogabalo it was a completely different story – all the singers felt the pulse and impetus of his reading, and reacted as one to the glorious metrical shifts that abound in the score.
I also very much liked the swaggering Eliogabalo of mezzo Renata Pokupic. In her punk clothes, spiky hair and confrontational attitudes she commanded the stage, moving like a dancer throughout her role, but her voice remained extremely steady and true and she produced clean, rich tone throughout. Casting a mezzo rather than a counter-tenor in the role made for one effective moment: when Pokupic first appears with the bunny girls of her all-female Senate, one almost thinks that Danielle De Niese must be making a guest appearance at Grange Park! I can't think of a counter-tenor who could have pulled that off!
Eliogabalo has its share of deranged or frustrated females, and the trio of Claire Booth as Eritea, Sinead Campbell-Wallace as Flavia and Yvette Bonner as Attilia all made their mark in different ways. Bonner has the lightest voice of the three and proved unfailingly musical, neat and accurate. She has one little plaint or lament in the first act that deserved a true ovation. Campbell-Wallace was effective and histrionic: her voice is bright but seemed to me to harden very slightly under pressure. It may have been first night nerves, but she needs to guard against shrillness of tone: she moved and acted splendidly however and I found myself irresistibly reminded of another anguished operatic heroine, Donna Elvira. Booth found the happy medium. Full of pure tone, expressive singing, lovely sustained lines and an attractive stage presence. All three female leads (if we give Eliogabalo honorary male status for a moment) were attractively costumed, moved well and looked gorgeous. And Fielding's Personenregie, the art of fluid movement and effective blocking, was outstanding throughout.
Another outstanding singing performance came from James Laing in the counter-tenor role of Giuliano. His breath control, fluency of melodic line and sheer beauty of tone promises very well for the future. In his battle fatigues and cap he looked somewhat dowdy: I longed for some smarter, more arresting gear that would have enlivened the crucial 'dilemma scene', when he has to decide whether or not to turn against Eliogabalo and join the plotters. But he gave us a terrific sing and deserved his ovation at the end.
That brings us to the character who was given the arresting gear – Lenia, nanny to Eliogabalo, played in the pantomime dame idiom by a highly assured and full-bodied tenor, Tom Walker. In his blonde wig, short white dress and high heels, Walker always had visual impact. But what I really enjoyed was the sound he made – vivid projection, a lovely clear and rhythmically precise line and a very contained performance. A drag act of this type can easily become tedious: Walker avoided all the pitfalls, and made the most of the role. And his vocal assurance rather overshadowed the other tenor role Zotico, vocally under-characterised by Ashley Catling.
Joao Fernandes was new to me in the role of the servant Nerbulone. He has a strong, highly flexible bass baritone, light and flowing at the top end but with real bass Heft when required. His Frank Zappa appearance was at times disconcerting, but I was sorry to see him go, butchered and left in a pool of blood in a public convenience. In the other bass role, Tiferne, Francisco Javier Borda made the most of his physique in a cameo appearance and after a slightly uncertain musical start (could he see the conductor from where he was placed?) his voice warmed into a convincing assumption of the role.
That leaves me with the stand-out performance of the evening, the trouser role of Alessandro beautifully taken by Julia Riley. The part lay perfectly for her interesting voice, a mezzo soprano that can clearly encompass higher lying roles as well. What Riley exuded was calm assurance: as she sang, I found myself relaxing into the Cavalli idiom and relishing the expressiveness of the musical line. She is clearly an Octavian in the making: I found her performance simply glorious. And like the other leads, she moved well and looked good throughout.
For lovers of early opera, this is a no-brainer: you have to go and see Eliogabalo at Grange Park. What you will experience is a feast of fine singing and playing, beautifully controlled by a conductor who knows exactly what he is doing. The choices made by the director will certainly not appeal to everyone, and for every idea that I liked, I found one that I thought gratuitous or not really in keeping with the melodic flow of the piece. But Fielding is never less than interesting and watchable, and has given us an early opera to remember. 'You don't just consume this Cavalli: you engage with it' was an apposite comment made to me in the night air after the performance. Engage with it if you possibly can!
Photo Credits: Alastair Muir
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