A maniacal, lecherous, cross-dressing emperor hosts a blindfolded groping party and packs a corrupt senate with prostitutes. Is this a newly discovered sequel to “Fellini Satyricon”? A gross-out John Waters film? Or “The Real Housewives of Ancient Rome?”
No, it’s “Eliogabalo,” a Baroque Italian opera by Francesco Cavalli, written in 1667 but never performed in the composer’s lifetime, partly because the story was a shocker even for Venetian audiences used to seeing all manner of wild sexuality and political corruption on the opera stage. Based on the sordid life of the third-century teenage Roman emperor Heliogabalus, this late Cavalli opera, ignored for centuries, finally had its premiere in 1999 in Crema, Italy.
On Friday night the enterprising Gotham Chamber Opera opened this Baroque rarity at, of all places, the Box, the Lower East Side nightclub known for its boundary-pushing programming. This audacious production, directed by James Marvel, turns “Eliogabalo” into a glam-rock melodrama, with bare-chested burlesque performers (of both sexes) who silently interact with a terrific cast, headed by the impressive, sexy countertenor Christopher Ainslie. Now on his way to becoming a rock star of Baroque opera, Mr. Ainslie excels as the cross-dressing emperor and carries himself like Jonathan Rhys Meyers’s pop idol character in “Velvet Goldmine.”
Obviously there is a big novelty factor to presenting a carnal “Eliogabalo” in a nightclub. But the production genuinely dramatizes the issues of gender identity and unfettered lust that drive the opera. Cavalli’s score, a continuous and mood-shifting marvel, rich with stretches of urgent recitative and alluring arias, is well served by the skilled cast and a seven-piece Baroque instrument ensemble. The music director of the production is Grant Herreid, who also plays theorbo.
By performing this opera in the Box, Gotham Chamber Opera is offering audiences an exhilarating demonstration of its mission: to present site-specific productions in spaces that enhance the stories and enliven the music. The Box, designed to look like a small-scale 19th-century vaudeville palace, can accommodate 300 people. For this production a stage platform is extended into the room to create a T-shaped performance space, which cuts the capacity to 175 (including standees in the bar area). Some patrons sit on either side of the narrow stage extension, which provides up-close intimacy with the singers, who stride across and writhe atop the platform. During one foot-stomping outburst, Mr. Ainslie’s Eliogabalo knocked over a patron’s drink. Though Cavalli’s opera glosses over the details of the real Heliogabalus’s bisexual exploits, his penchant for cross-dressing remains central to the story. This production suggests Eliogabalo’s homoerotic lusts and gender-blurring fantasies through the way Mr. Ainslie portrays the character. This is a man who loves women so intensely that he almost wants to be one.
The story turns on the emperor’s attempt to break up the planned marriages of two loyal aides. He decides he must marry the sensual Eritea, who is pledged to Giuliano, the prefect of the Praetorian guards. But Eliogabalo even more intensely wants the winsome Flavia Gemmira, who is betrothed to his cousin the noble Alessandro.
The singers, wearing playful costumes out of some glam fantasy (designed by Mattie Ullrich), seemed inspired by the piece and the production. The soprano Micaëla Oeste is a sweet-voiced Flavia Gemmira. Emily Grace Righter brings a rich mezzo-soprano voice and charming nobility to the male role of Alessandro. The dusky-toned soprano Susannah Biller as Eritea and the clarion countertenor Randall Scotting as Giuliano are also excellent.
The mezzo-soprano Daryl Freedman is wonderful as the whip-wielding servant, Zotico. The dynamic tenor John Easterlin, in drag, makes a hilarious Lenia, a conniving old servant to the emperor. Also outstanding are the soprano Maeve Hoglund as Atilia, who pines for Alessandro, and the bass-baritone Brandon Cedel as the galumphing servant Nerbulone, who during one scene got drunk on the extended platform and offered patrons sips from his goblet.
After each show, a crew from Gotham Chamber Opera has to disassemble the makeshift set and cart it to a truck to clear the Box for its all-night offerings. Now that’s dedication.