The final act of Francesco Cavalli‘s 1667 opera Eliogabalo has a happy ending. The eponymous Roman emperor-a superlatively debauched, violent rapist-has been assassinated, and the remaining characters are united with their lovers, a benevolent and responsible new emperor crowned. In Gotham Chamber Opera‘s current production, the first act also finishes with a happy ending, but, in this case, in the massage-parlor sense. As the emperor’s amorous servants, tenor John Easterlin (en travesti) and baritone Brandon Cedel made that climactic moment genuinely funny.
Seventeenth-century Italian opera can be shockingly dirty and often has a way of seeming surprisingly modern. Many works from that period combine opera seria elements with moments of kooky sex farce-which, in this case, is particularly appropriate to the subject matter as well as to the venue. Gotham’s production of Eliogabalo functions as site-specific at The Box, a small theater in the Lower East Side, notorious for its wild late-night avant-garde burlesque shows. The Box’s cultivated air of louche mystery resonates with the historical reputation of Emperor Elagabalus-said to have turned tricks, been pansexual, made political appointments on the basis of penis size, and on and on-and gave the creative team license to revel in the risqué nature of the opera.
The overall effect of the production was a witty combination of skillful opera and Hey, kids, let’s put on a show! Musically, it was thoughtful, professional and excellent. Director James Marvel’s staging, though, had the-charming, winning, successful-air of a pervy high school play; the costumes were beautifully constructed, but looked as if they’d been designed by the glue-sniffing class weirdo. (I mean that only figuratively; costume designer Mattie Ullrich is extremely talented and creative and, I’m sure, neither a weirdo nor a glue sniffer.) Studded leather, sequins and translucent drapery abounded.
The evening began with four dancers-three women and one man, all wearing only silver shorts under long sheer skirts-performing Austin McCormick’s cleverly silly, playful choreography, dancing about sexy dancing more than strictly dancing sexily. This set the mood for the whole show, which never took itself too seriously. The dancers had performed with Gotham in the past, and they served as supernumeraries throughout the opera. When Eliogabalo decreed an all-female Senate-a ploy to seduce Flavia Gemmira (soprano Mica√´la Oeste); the plot is convoluted and hardly matters-all the women wore black shorts and bras under translucent dresses that looked like they were made of rubber. The dancers also wore the rubber garments, but completed the show wearing strap-on dildos underneath.
As Eliogabalo, South African countertenor Christopher Ainslie delivered a fearless, committed performance. Perfectly comfortable in his purple fishnets and bedazzled jock strap or his gold sequined mini dress, he played up the character’s imperiousness and insanity, by turns comic and menacing.
The acoustics from The Box’s stage do no favors to unamplified operatic singing, especially the high-register voices of the majority of the cast. Still, Ainslie sounded clear and strong as he threw himself into the role. Oeste and mezzo-soprano Emily Grace Righter-as Alessandro, Eliogabalo’s cousin and successor and Flavia’s true love-portrayed more dignified characters in the opera seria passages of the opera. While still taking part in the overall carnivalesque atmosphere, they brought elegant pathos and vulnerability to the poignant moments in the work.
Now and then, when the singers stepped out onto the catwalk-like stage extension through the middle of the room, voices that had sounded either deadened or too bright for the space revealed themselves to be gorgeous and subtly inflected. It would have been great if more of the singing had been performed out there in the open.
This catwalk, part of Carol Bailey’s simple and dynamic set design, was effective not only for the voices, but also for engaging the audience and heightening the show’s intimacy. There was seating along the sides of this protruding stage, and the proximity between the performers and the spectators lent both physical and dramatic immediacy to the highly entertaining spectacle.
There is one more performance of Eliogabalo-Friday, March 29-but, like the rest of the run, it is sold out.