Gotham Chamber Opera

Where opera gets intimate.
February 27, 2013

Navigating in The Box

I have always enjoyed Gotham Chamber Opera’s productions for their ability to completely envelop and immerse the audience’s senses in a story. In recent years, their continually elevated narrations have led them to synchronistic settings which enhance the viewer’s understanding of the characters’ motivations, historical references, and primary themes. In the case of Eliogabalo, both the space and the significance of the opening date (March 15, the Ides of March) foreshadow the mood of the tale.

My process for designing the scenery was greatly motivated by the unique voice of this unconventional space. The final product exudes a marriage of visions between me as set designer, the director James Marvel, and the space. During our first visit to The Box, James and I sat in every seat, studied the architecture, and walked in and out of the venue a number of times, keeping in mind how the audience would perceive their surroundings upon entering this world. On subsequent visits, I brought in color samples and materials that would both blend and contrast with the existing colors and fabrics. As we continued to survey The Box‘s amenities, we found a long central table used for dinner parties. This inspired us to make a long “catwalk” that would connect and include our audience in the show; it will provide closer visual contact for the patrons upstairs in the balcony and an extremely intimate experience for those lucky viewers seated at the table!

IMAGE 1: The Box

The venue presented a few other challenges that we had to navigate. For example, in order to accommodate The Box’s late night performance schedule, we will have to move the show out after each performance. We essentially designed a traveling show -- a challenge which I found very intriguing.  Also, there was the task of making the space appear larger while retaining its intimacy. James envisioned a set with voyeuristic and reflective visual elements, presentational modules, and pieces that could be used in a variety of ways to help solve the space issue. 

IMAGE 2: Set Model for Eliogabalo 

Without giving too much away, I think we have overcome our obstacles and made an interesting backdrop for our costume designer Mattie Ullrich’s exquisite pieces. We also produced objects that are complimented by our lighting designer Clifton Taylor’s varied and beautifully lighting techniques. I am looking forward to seeing how our collaboration works in the space.

(Carol Bailey)

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CHAPTER 2

Cavalli’s Eliogabalo, as we have seen in the first chapter of this blog series, was replaced by an opera with the same exact title, but composed by a musician who was almost forty years younger, Giovanni A. Boretti. Luckily, unlike most of the operas written in that century for the Venetian theatres, the scores of both Cavalli’s and Boretti’s operas still survive. After the first run of performances in the Serenissima, Boretti’s opera travelled Italy for nine years, being performed in Parma, Naples, Genoa, Bologna, Rome, Milan, Palermo, and Turin. Cavalli's Eliogabalo, instead, ended up, as we remember, in the composer’s drawer. Cavalli himself however must have thought that Eliogabalo would have seen the stage sooner or later (much later, as it turned out!). Toward the end of his life he included it among the operas which he wanted passed on to future generations, and they now form a precious collection in the Marciana library in Venice (see the previous blog chapter).

IMAGE 3: Title page of Aurelio Aureli, Eliogabalo, music by Giovanni A. Boretti (Venice, 1668)

 

The libretto of the opera that replaced Cavalli's Eliogabalo—the Eliogabalo set to music by Boretti—was published and distributed at the 1668 Venetian performances. It begins with a mysterious "letter to the reader" written by the author, Aureli, in the convoluted Baroque language typical of these prefaces. This letter allows us a glimpse of the troubled weeks leading to the cancellation of the first opera. It is thus worth citing it in its entirety:

 

Reader:

I bother you again with my weaknesses: And when I was thinking of giving you less trouble by presenting a different Eliogabalo, conceived by a high intellect, now dead, and ornamented with various gems by an erudite writer from the Veneto, then partly adjusted by me in keeping with current Venetian usage, and in the end ennobled by the singular music of signor Francesco Cavalli, I had, unexpectedly and in response to the vigorous order of someone I had to obey, to hastily finish this Eliogabalo [set to music by Boretti], legitimate product of my pen, completely different in manner and action from the other one [set to music by Cavalli].

 

Aureli here acknowledges that his libretto actually replaces a previous version, set by Cavalli. For two years, the librettist claims, he had worked on the first version, revising a text by an author left nameless. But "unexpectedly," and due to a "vigorous order" by an authority he "had to obey," Aureli had to "hastily" write a different text. This new work, we learn, is based on the same subject as the former one, but it is "completely different in manner and action from the other." Evidently Aureli wants readers to notice that, although the title and the subject of Boretti's opera is the same as Cavalli's, there are nonetheless substantial differences in the two plots.

 

Unfortunately, in this letter Aureli does not tell us why Cavalli's opera was withdrawn from the 1667–68 season of the Teatro SS. Giovanni e Paolo. No surviving archival documentation answers this question, so we can only speculate. Recently, it has been hypothesized that Cavalli's musical style was perceived as old-fashioned. We know in fact that five years later another opera by Cavalli (Massenzio) was cancelled because it was "lacking lively ariette." Catering to a larger public that enjoyed easy tunes, operas written in the 1660s and 1670s featured an increased number of arias with fewer recitatives. But Cavalli did not follow this trend, prioritizing dramatic effect over the mere display of singers’ vocal abilities. His Eliogabalo might have been cancelled because of too many recitatives and too few tunes.

 

IMAGE 4: Illustrated frontispiece of Aurelio Aureli, Eliogabalo, music by Giovanni A. Boretti (Venice, 1668)

A comparison, however, of the plots (not the music) of the two Eliogabalos—Cavalli's and Boretti's—reveals further elements that may have accounted for the failure of the first work. The plots share two dominant themes. Firstly, Eliogabalo's behavior is very similar in the two operas: instead of ruling the Roman Empire, the libertine emperor obsessively chases women, thus emblematizing vice. Secondly, in both operas Alessandro, Eliogabalo's cousin and successor, represents the emperor's virtuous counterpart: he is virile, diligent in his duties, and faithful to his beloved. More striking than the similarities are however the differences—those that Aureli, as we have seen, points out to his readers.

 

 

An important difference concerns the two plot outcomes. In the Cavalli finale, the lascivious, effeminate emperor is brutally killed (off-stage) and Alessandro becomes the new Emperor. In contrast, in Boretti's opera, Eliogabalo survives the soldiers’ revolt, regrets his evil deeds, and continues to rule with Alessandro’s help. By showing in the libretto for Boretti the repentance of the ruler (instead of his slaying) the later opera adhered to one of the main tenets of Catholic political thought of its time. According to Jesuit writers, it was acceptable to slay the tyrant who usurped the throne, but not the legitimate ruler-turned-oppressor (for example, Heliogabalus). The power bestowed upon the ruler was irrevocable, and thus a legitimate ruler could not be attacked despite his viciousness. That Jesuit political thinking is reflected in the finale of Boretti’s opera can be argued in noting that in May 1668, that is, only four months after the Venetian premiere of Boretti's Eliogabalo, the opera was performed at the Jesuit college of Parma. Thus the work might have been conceived, from the beginning, with that performance in mind. Repentance—which Eliogabalo shows at the end of Boretti’s opera—is the value most emphasized in Jesuit plays of that time. Cavalli's opera then, with his brutal finale, was "outside its time" not only in terms of musical style, but also because its plot, specifically its dénouement, did not fit the dominant political ideology.

(Mauro Calcagno)

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February 25, 2013

The Art of Seduction

 

Nothing gets me more artistically titillated than the fusion of opera and nightlife. I am passionate about framing “high-art” performance in uniquely untraditional settings.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wanted to sip a cocktail while enjoying operatic entertainment. Thankfully, Gotham Chamber Opera feels the same way and has chosen to stage Cavalli’s Eliogabalo directed by James Marvel at The Box- the coolest vaudeville/burlesque hot spot in New York City. I am assistant directing and choreographing this rarely performed Baroque beauty.  Some might say staging a full Baroque Opera in the intimate confines of The Box is a bit crazy, I say it’s the way this work should be enjoyed- up-close and raw.  It is obvious that staging an opera in a semi- unconventional space will have its challenges. Each of these “limitations” are opportunities for innovation.

 

James had the fantastic idea to bring in a live DJ who will be spinning as patrons arrive, and COMPANY XIV dancers will perform a pre-show to set the mood. My artistic challenge in terms of movement is to fuse the obvious Baroque aesthetic with a more contemporary movement vocabulary that is both sensual and appropriate to the opera. For me, true Baroque dance is about the negotiation of masculine and feminine energies manifested in the body. The best Baroque dancers execute military precision with their lower bodies contrasted by airy, elegant port-de-bras. I have taken this idea of duality and focused it through a “Baroque Burlesque” lens; I am treating the dancers involved as androgynous sexualized embodiments of both male and female forms.  I am striving for a movement vocabulary that feels modern and sexy but has a nod to the ornamentation and decadence of the Baroque form. The challenge in tackling sensual subject matter through movement is that the audience doesn’t want to feel it is gratuitous, rather it is about the art of seduction, always leaving your lover wanting more. This should be the role of the dancers in Eliogabalo, a continuous source of temptation and carnal desire.

 

I am thrilled at the opportunity to collaborate with this exciting company of talented and fearless singers, musicians, and designers.  It truly excites me that New York audiences will have the opportunity to experience a Baroque opera in a setting that celebrates naughty titillation, depraved excess, and world-class talent.

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CHAPTER 1

Francesco Cavalli's Eliogabalo was originally scheduled for the 1668 Carnival season at the Theater SS. Giovanni e Paolo in Venice. However the premiere was abruptly cancelled shortly before it was to be performed, and thus Cavalli, who was in his sixties and one of the most famous composers of his time, never saw it staged. The opera had to actually wait more than three hundred years to be performed, until 1999, when it was staged in the small town of Crema, the composer’s birthplace in northern Italy. That performance was possible simply because the composer himself had made sure that his opera manuscripts would have been preserved (they are now housed in the Biblioteca Marciana in Venice). This preoccupation regarding his legacy was unusual. Indeed very few opera scores still survive from that century.

IMAGE 1: Bust of the emperor Heliogabalus (or Elagabalus, 204–222 A.D.), Rome, Musei Capitolini
 

Evidently, Cavalli thought that Eliogabalo one day would have reached the stage to earn its deserved success. He was right. After Crema, performances in Belgium, Germany, England, and a couple of them in American academic settings (including Stony Brook University) have all been a revelation. Gotham Chamber Opera now offers the first professional staging in the US, and New York audiences will experience that shocking effect that Venetians, as we will see, were not able to withstand.

And indeed, why was the opera’s premiere cancelled? In these blog entries I intend to shed some light on the mysterious story behind the cancellation of Eliogabalo, an opera that can be called the Don Giovanni of the seventeenth century. The lascivious Roman emperor Heliogabalus (204–222 A.D.) was not only a worthy successor of the famous corrupt and licentious Nero, who lived less than two centuries earlier, but an equally worthy predecessor of the libertine Don Juan, the notorious womanizer whose fictional character was created in the same century as Cavalli’s opera.

IMAGE 2: A passage from Act III, scene 4, in the manuscript score of Cavalli’s Eliogabalo preserved in the Biblioteca Marciana in Venice. The score was penned by a copyist but Cavalli made some corrections, including performance indications such as the one on top left "Si deve sonare anco il Violon grosso" ("The large violon ought to play as well")

But, with his Eliogabalo, Cavalli was not as lucky as Mozart would be with his Don Giovanni. His fellow Venetians could not accept, among other things, that the opera ended with the emperor’s murder. Just a few weeks before the premiere, the owners of the theater replaced his opera with another Eliogabalo, forced the librettist to rewrite the text with some of the offensive scenes either removed or rewritten, and asked a much younger composer, a 27-year old whose musical style may also have been more “up to date” than that of Cavalli, to set it to music (his name was Giovanni Antonio Boretti and they recruited him from Rome). This other Eliogabalo—the one that indeed was premiered—ended not with the emperor’s assassination but with . . . his repentance (!). We can hardly imagine Cavalli’s bitterness, after having written huge successes among his 30 operas, at seeing himself replaced by a youngster.

What happened then? We’ll never know for sure, but in the next chapters of this blog I will offer some hypotheses.

(Mauro Calcagno)

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Composer-in-Residence Missy Mazzoli was featured in OPERA America's Salon Series in January. The evening included a presentation of selections from her first opera, Song from the Uproar. You can watch the entire program here or at OPERA America's YouTube channel at http://youtu.be/eP9cqWiy38Q

 

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