Gotham Chamber Opera

Where opera gets intimate.

Having recently presented the world premiere of Nico Muhly’s Dark Sisters and revisited our roots with Mozart’s Il sogno di Scipione, we at Gotham Chamber Opera were, as usual, looking for the next unexpected direction to take. Sometimes, it turns out, unexpected directions are right in front of you. For me the path began with Robin Guarino’s masterful production of Francesco Cavalli’s La Calisto at Juilliard in 2006. Here was a composer able to invoke both laughter and tears with equal flourish while creating characters of unusual complexity. I vowed to present a Cavalli opera when the right moment came along. As Guarino’s La Calisto production could not be improved upon, I instead considered his other best-known works, Giasone and L’Ormindo. But then the musicologist (and Gotham devotee) Ellen Rosand, who is the world’s leading expert on early Italian opera, turned my attention to the 1667 Eliogabalo: Cavalli’s last and, she felt, greatest opera. She was right.

Additional enticements were that Eliogabalo, only relatively recently discovered, had not been performed professionally in the United States, and that we would be promised the premiere of the new score she and Mauro Calcagno were preparing for the Bärenreiter complete edition. Such confluences of intrinsic and extrinsic lures rarely occur, so the choice seemed to make itself. Upon receiving the score, I was struck by how modern it seems in its characters and situations. One need look no further than today’s newspapers to find evidence of the moral turpitude of political leaders and the sense of entitlement that can come with power. The characters may be standard types, but with their fully believable and often conflicting motivations, they are people we easily recognize. The story is also modern in its moral ambiguity. It trades in depravity while at the same time celebrating “traditional” moral values like fidelity and honesty. The characters that violate social norms (the assassin, the procuress, the rent boy, and of course the licentious monarch) are punished, thereby confirming a moral code that has seemingly not changed much in more than three centuries. Yet these are also, quite deliberately, the most arresting characters. The assassin and the procuress are depicted as crossdressers, further emphasized by the contralto’s tessitura being lower than the tenor’s. And though drag was commonly used for comic roles in opera and theater of this period, it is here reserved for villains; the emperor himself appears in women’s clothes. The conflict between theatrical excitement and an assumed morality is part of what makes Eliogabalo feel as if it were written today, being performed for the first time right here. With its many characters, complex interrelations, and oversize emotions, Eliogabalo might best be seen as a soap opera episode set to music. Its focus on sex, power, greed, and ambition, in addition to its preponderance of dialogue, make it a closer relative of Falcon Crest than La Bohème. Cavalli understood that the celebration of prurience was a sure recipe for success through the ages: good may eventually triumph, but bad is more fun in the meantime.

(Neal Goren)

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CHAPTER 4:

The potential subversiveness of bringing to a Venetian public stage the issue of prostitution in the context of political appointments fully emerges if we consider two contemporaneous historical facts. First, in the seventeenth century prostitution was a striking reality in the Serenissima, a city famous all over Europe not only for its opera theaters but for its thousands of prostitutes. Second, many contemporaneous clandestine political pamphlets featured attacks on, and satires of, the Venetian government in which a common target was the assignment of political appointments in the Senate in exchange for money. Indeed the selling of appointments—the so-called broglio—was a particularly frequent practice among members of the Venetian senate. Not surprisingly, to describe the corrupt Venetian political world, the pamphleteers did not hesitate to draw comparisons between noble families involved in politics and the thousands of prostitutes living on the lagoon. Of course these works were all immediately censored by the government authorities, but they circulated nonetheless.

The references to prostitution present in the two Eliogabalos—but especially, as we have seen, in Cavalli’s opera—could have been easily read as an allusion to, or deriving from, this subversive literature. The conflation featured in the Senate scenes of Cavalli’s Eliogabalo among the episodes of the all-women Senate episode, Heliogabalus’ speech to the prostitutes, and the distribution of political appointments—three episodes that, we remember (see previous blog chapter), were kept separate in Lampridius' biography—could have sounded highly suspicious, indeed subversive.

 

IMAGE 8: Floor plan of the Teatro SS. Giovanni e Paolo in Venice, owned by the Grimani family (1654)

 

 

But who could have feared the potential subversiveness of the Senate scenes as they had been originally conceived for Cavalli's opera?

All clues lead to the powerful Grimani brothers, the owners of the Teatro SS. Giovanni e Paolo for which Cavalli's work was planned. As seen in our first blog chapter, at the end of 1667 Giovanni Carlo and Vincenzo dismissed the impresario and became the managers of their own theater. They in effect fired Cavalli and hired Boretti, but kept Aureli on their payroll and had him "hastily" rewrite the libretto, as he himself says in the "letter to the reader" quoted in the second chapter of our blog series. Perhaps Aureli dedicated his libretto to the Grimanis as an act of reparation. It was their uncle, Zuane, who had founded and managed for decades the Teatro SS. Giovanni e Paolo (in which Monteverdi's Incoronazione di Poppea had been staged in 1643). The two brothers probably felt the responsibility of following family tradition by continuing to mix political power with art and entertainment. The first step in this process was to take control of their own theater, which their uncle (who had died in 1663) had only temporarily assigned to an impresario. In 1673, ten years after stepping into the opera business, the Grimani brothers added to the SS. Giovanni e Paolo a second, independent theater for opera, the Teatro S. Giovanni Grisostomo, which they made into the mirror of their political prestige. This theater immediately became the most luxurious, spacious, and important opera theater ever built in Italy. In those years Vincenzo was quickly climbing the ladder of a stellar political and religious career, becoming first an influential cardinal of the Roman Curia, and then the powerful vice-king of Naples. (A men of letters, he was also the librettist of Handel's Agrippina.).

 

IMAGE 9: The Venetian Teatro S. Giovanni Grisostomo (about 1730), owned by the Grimani family

                                                         

It is thus likely that such a  prominent and powerful noble family could have viewed Cavalli's Eliogabalo, with its allusion to sexuality, prostitution and politics, as morally and politically daring, indeed subversive. The Grimanis presumably decided to censor it and ordered the librettist to make substantial changes. Cavalli may have considered these changes too burdensome. An aging man and prominent figure in Venetian musical life, the composer might not have wanted to bow to such last-minute demands, after having already completed the entire score to the original libretto. In showing conflictual aspirations—artistic vs. political ones—the case of the two Eliogabalos provides a unique window into the uneasy relationships among musicians, librettists, and opera patrons in seventeenth-century Venice. And it provides a key to understand the shocking effect that Cavalli’s Eliogabalo still has on today’s audiences.

IMAGE 10: Cardinal Vincenzo Grimani (1652 or 1655–1710)

 

(Mauro Calcagno)

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March 11, 2013

Eliogabalo Podcast

On this episode of the Indie Opera Podcast, Peter Szep, Noah Lethbridge, Walker Lewis and Brooke Larimer are joined by Mauro Calcagno, musicologist and James Marvel, Director of "Eliogabalo".

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LISTEN TO ELIOGABALO PODCAST
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CHAPTER 3

The Venice of the 1660s—when Cavalli’s Eliogabalo was composed-was characterized by an extremely conservative political and cultural atmosphere, very different from the progressive, libertine one of the first half of the century, when opera as public entertainment first flourished on the lagoon and Cavalli’s career as opera composer flourished too. The return of the Jesuits in Venice in 1657, after their expulsion for 50 years caused by the Interdict, contributed to a shift towards religious and cultural orthodoxy. Censorship became much more oppressive, and playwrights and librettists had to be much more careful. The noble owners of the theater where Eliogabalo was performed, the powerful Grimani family, financially supported the Society of Jesus. It is revealing that, in the months preceding the opera season in which Cavalli's work was to be performed, the brothers Giovanni Carlo and Vincenzo Grimani fired the impresario Marco Faustini to become the only people managing the Teatro SS. Giovanni e Paolo. As the sole directors of their own theater, their public image was even more closely tied to the productions staged there, and they might have wanted the operas to reflect their ideology even more. No longer needing an intermediary such as an impresario, they began to exercise direct artistic control. Cavalli's Eliogabalo fell at that crucial juncture in time.          

 

IMAGE 5: The church of Santa Maria della Salute in Venice, designed by Baldassarre Longhena, was being built at the time of Eliogabalo and was eventually completed in 1681.

 

In the Venice of the 1660s, then, Cavalli’s finale, featuring the killing of the emperor, was probably less suited to the public stage than Boretti’s, which highlighted repentance. The rejection of Cavalli's opera, however, might be also explained by considering another critical passage besides the finale, one that is included in both works but in very different ways: the episode in which Heliogabalus appoints an all-female Senate. In the first libretto, set by Cavalli, the episode spans three long scenes (Act I, scenes 14–16), whereas in the second libretto, set by Boretti, it lasts a mere seven lines (Act III, scene 19). Why did Aureli so drastically shorten the Senate episode?

 

To understand the reason behind this cut I will examine Aureli’s main literary source for both plots: Aelius Lampridius' biography of Heliogabalus written in the fourth century A.D., shortly after the emperor's death. The Senate episode in both operas represents in fact a conflation of three separate episodes of the biography of the emperor. 

 

In the first episode Lampridius narrates that Heliogabalus established a senaculum, or female senate, on Quirinal Hill at the suggestions of his mother, Symiamira. This episode is only one of the many reported (or invented?)  by Lampridius which illustrate the emperor's extravagant habits and sexual perversions. For example: Heliogabalus used to travel with six hundred chariots "full of his male prostitutes, bawds, harlots, and lusty partners in depravity." He demanded that he be served fish when he was near the mountains, and meat when he was near the sea; he required sea-water swimming pools at his mountain residence and snow hills at his beach house. He wanted meals of twenty-two courses, in between which he would bathe with prostitutes. He never used any of his clothes twice, nor any bathroom, swimming pool, nor residence; and he never even used the same woman twice, although he did keep the same male prostitute (a man called Zotico, who is a character in Cavalli's Eliogabalo) as a servant and adviser during his entire reign. Heliogabalus himself was considered to be the child of a prostitute, such was the reputation of his mother Symiamira in Rome. He also had surgery to become a castrato.

 

IMAGE 6: Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836–1912), The Roses of Heliogabalus (1888), oil on canvas

The second episode of the Lampridius biography used by Aureli to write the Senate episode in both of the Eliogabalo librettos fits the above-mentioned list of the emperor's extravagances. In this passage of the biography, Heliogabalus, dressed as a woman, addresses a group of prostitutes calling them "comrades-in-arms" (commilitones). In Lampridius, this episode has nothing to do with the Senate one. Aureli however, in a bold move, conflated the two episodes, so that Eliogabalo, in the Senate, dresses as a woman and makes a speech to the women senators. By borrowing the episode of the speech to the prostitutes, the librettist thus transformed the gathering of the women in the senate into an assembly of whores. This further attribute of the women is not explicit in either of the librettos (they are simply called senators), but it is far more evident in the libretto for Cavalli; for example, in the flirtatiousness of Atilia, who in Cavalli's opera (I, 14) says to the emperor: "For the favor you concede / make us pay a toll of pleasure; / each of us beauties / should pay to you / the Love's tithe of our sex." By cutting to the bone (7 lines) the three scenes at the end of Act I of Cavalli's Eliogabalo (ca. 150 lines) to make up Boretti's Senate episode, Aureli effectively "muted" the explosive allusion to the prostitutes.

 

Finally, a third episode from Lampridius' biography is used by Aureli for scene 15 of Act I of Cavalli's Eliogabalo, this borrowing not affecting instead the parallel Senate scene of Boretti’s opera (III, 19). It was probably this conflation—as we shall see, a highly-charged political one—which must have been the "last straw" for whomever decided to cancel Cavalli's opera. Had this opera been staged, in fact, not only would the public have witnessed a gathering of women senators (something very far from the reality of the conservative, all-male government of the Serenissima) and not only would the senators have been alluded to as none other than prostitutes, but the emperor would have appeared on stage distributing to such women a number of important political appointments! This is indeed what occurs in Act I, scene 15 of  Cavalli's opera: the women senators, blindfolded, embrace one another in an erotic game; she who guesses the name of the one who hugs her wins a political appointment. Heliogabalus too takes part in this licentious game, dressed as a woman. The contest is interrupted by the sudden entrance in the hall of an ex-lover of the emperor, who is thus forced to suspend the game.

 

Nothing so explicitly licentious appears in the opera that was actually staged at the Teatro Grimani in 1668, Boretti's Eliogabalo. From Cavalli's opera Aureli cut the three sparkling scenes staged in the Senate (I, 14-16), with the following seven lines remaining: "O females, / better part of the Latin kingdom, / audacious comrades-in-arms, / sweet adornments of the Tiber,  here is Augustus, / changed fom man into woman; / to please you, o beautiful, / I concede you the Senate" (Aureli/Boretti, Eliogabalo, III, 19). No erotic game and no distribution of political appointments followed these lines in the finale of Boretti's opera. What followed instead was Eliogabalo's unlikely repentance of his past deeds—indeed an unrealistic, didactic, and Jesuit-like ending.

(Mauro Calcagno)

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