General Director Mark Streshinsky writes about Eliogabalo
and the timeliness of a 350 year old opera.
Eliogabalo first came to my attention in 2013 when my friends at Gotham Chamber Opera (which sadly no longer exists) put on a wild production at a decadent nightclub in Manhattan called The Box. I knew the opera was based on the life of roman emperor Heliogabalus (AD 218-222) who had a voracious appetite for sex and no problem using his power to get it. He also had a preference to dress in drag while forcing his senators to do so as well. I also knew about the painting by Alma-Tadema called The Roses of Heliogabalus depicting the emperor smothering his dinner guests to death under a deluge of rose petals. Though this is a decidedly unlikely story I was drawn to the fabulous audacity of the gesture. I’ve been wanting to do a Cavalli opera, and one featuring a larger than life villain you love to hate with an patina of sex and depravity seemed perfect for West Edge.
As we were beginning to talk about the 2020 season early last year, I started studying the score and watching the Paris Opera production, the entirety of which is on YouTube. While much of the production is not to my liking, I found the music to be truly gorgeous. Around that time, I started talking to countertenor Randall Scotting, who had just finished getting his doctorate and was anxious to get back to performing. Randall had been in the Gotham production as the good guy, Guiliano, but I suggested he take on the role of Eliogabalo. He was thrilled. Besides being a fabulous singer, Randall is, well, kind of perfect. He’s tall with long curly hair, very comfortable in his own skin, and perhaps most importantly for this role, up for almost anything.
At about that time I got hold of The René Jacobs recording of the piece. Jacobs is famous for taking early opera scores that were originally meant to be accompanied by a small ensemble, usually harpsichord, cello, and lute, and adapting them for larger, more modern orchestral forces. Our West Edge Monteverdi opera productions have featured historically appropriate instrumentation with period instruments and that’s what I prefer. Listening to the music, I started analyzing the story and thinking about editing the score for our production.
Editing and reworking early dramaturgy has become a bit of a passion for me since revising several operas by Handel and Monteverdi. To edit these operas, I think about a modern sensibility of storytelling and make adjustments to the order and length of the piece accordingly. I don’t rewrite the music, but I do rearrange the order, removing parts that seem unnecessary or not in line with the purpose of the piece. For instance, when I revised Julius Caesar by Handel, I counted six separate times the character of Cornelia threatens to commit suicide… I thought a modern audience could stomach maybe three before they shouted “Oh just do it, already!” So I simply cut three of them.
In the case of Eliogabalo, I started with an analysis of the characters, starting with the men. Their motivations are fairly straightforward. Eliogabalo is only interested in himself, specifically his own pleasure, and is indifferent to the happiness of anyone who might stand in his way. He has no qualms drugging a woman he wants to have sex with regardless of what she might want. How timely! His two male foils are the good guys: Guiliano and especially the royalist, his cousin Alessandro. Alessandro is so morally upright and just that Eliogabalo wants to kill him simply for that reason: he makes him look bad. Alessandro is oblivious to this fact and so devoted to the office of Emperor as an institution that he refuses to see Eliogabalo for the villain we know him to be. Guiliano is aware of the the harm Eliogabalo does to his country, but when faced with the charge to kill him, he finds that the role of murderer/executioner is one he cannot swallow. His military training places rigid respect for hierarchy above the morality of a greater good.
What really convinced me of the genius and timeliness of this piece are the two main female characters, Eritea and especially Gemmira. Before the opera begins, Eliogabalo has convinced Eritea to have sex with him, promising her marriage if she does. She spends the first two acts trying to get Eliogabalo to make good on his promise to make her empress and preserve her honor while at the same time sadly trying to placate her heartbroken boyfriend, Guiliano. True to form, Eliogabalo has no interest since having his way with her, and instead turns his attentions to Gemmira who is engaged to Alessandro. I found the women to be very compelling characters, especially for their time. But I thought that both of them had story lines that could be more focused.
Act three starts out on a powerful note, with the two furious women insisting that Eliogabalo die. In the original piece, the opera ends with Eliogabalo being killed offstage by his disgruntled guards, hardly a compelling or rewarding end. It’s more like despotus interruptus. I realized that with a few tweaks, I could make the strength of the women continue through to the end by making them the orchestrators of the plot to kill the emperor. And of course, we absolutely needed to see him die onstage… So much catharsis in just two hours of opera! Strong women getting their revenge on their tormentor, and preventing more rape and sexual assault to boot.
On top of this all, I discovered the opera is riotously funny. Following a tradition in early opera, it features an older female comedic character written to be played by a man. Eliogabalo’s former wet nurse(!!), Lenia, has remained by her charge’s side and now serves as his number one henchwoman. Despite her advanced age, she manages to have a libido that almost matches her master’s, and has a similar approach to getting what she wants (perhaps he learned it from her!). She is madly in love with the young, strapping Nerbulone, disgruntled keeper of Eliogabalo’s harem. Nerbulone is uninterested until Lenia begins offering to pay him for sex, to which he happily agrees! This might be opera’s earliest sex worker! There was no doubt that West Edge veteran Jean-Paul Jones (who was in our Mata Hari) should play Lenia. Or rather JP’s alter ego, Effervescence Jackson, should play her… JP’s response? “She cray! Can’t wait!”
The last few months have been so exciting putting the planning for this production together, the cherry on the Eliogabalo sundae is that Adam Pearl, the early-music expert and harpsichordist at Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, agreed to be the music director. I can’t wait to work with Adam on this production.
Finally there is something else particularly intriguing about this opera. It was written in 1667 for the Venice Carnival season, but its world premiere wasn’t until 1999, only 21 years ago! In 1667, the opera was cancelled from the season and the libretto was handed to another composer to completely rewrite. We think this was for two reasons. One, the idea of a rightful ruler being dispatched by his own guards was… shall we say… distasteful to the rulers at the time and also to the Catholic church. (Strangely they didn’t seem to mind the corruption in the story, only the remedy). Perhaps an even stronger reason was that old Cavalli was at the end of his career and was still writing in a style more closely connected to his teacher, Monteverdi. This was considered at the time to be hopelessly old fashioned. The modern sensibilities of seventeenth century hipsters at the Venetian equivalent of Burning Man cried out for the latest and greatest. And here we are today, with our own modern sensibilities, finding our oh, so contemporary lives reflected in art that was considered old fashioned 350 years ago! Let’s hope we’re not still fighting these same battles 350 years from now. -Mark Streshinsky