Tuesday 7 July 2009

Review of Eliogabalo (1)

Handel had a penchant for basing his operas on librettos from Venice in the late 17th century, though of course these needed some tweaking to make them suitable. Handel's Serse is based on the libretto for Cavalli's opera of the same name. Handel's libretto, though, loses all but one of the comic characters and expands the arias for the principal characters.

Why, you may ask, begin a review of Cavalli's Eliogabalo with a discussion of Handel's Serse? Well, most people have heard at lease something from Serse and few have even heard of Eliogabalo.

Cavalli's (and Handel's) Serse deals with a rather imperious and slightly demented king interfering in the love life of his brother by commandeering his brother's fiancee. This fiancee has a sister who is desperate for a man. The actions are complicated by the actions of an array of comic servants. At the end, Serse sees reason and all ends happily.

In Eliogabalo an imperious and demented king interferes in the love life of two of his generals, commandeering their fiancees (one at a time). There is a third heroine who is desperate for a man. The actions are complicated by an array of comic servants. At the end Eliogabalo is killed by his soldiers whilst trying to rape his general's fiancee, but the good triumph.

Eliogabalo is rather like Serse on acid. It contains all the elements of a Cavalli plot from the period, but threaded round a lead character who is based on an historical character known to be mad and sexually voracious (and bisexual).

Much was made in the press of Eliogabalo's bisexuality but I am unclear of how much of this was actually in the libretto. At Grange Park Opera, director and designer David Fielding described the character Zotico as Eliogabalo's pimp and boy-friend. But in fact the character fits one of Cavalli's standard comic servant stereotypes (if you drop the gay sex).

It seems that Eliogabalo was meant to be decadent, but quite how much this would have been reflected on stage I am unclear. Simply portraying him as an extreme sexual predator would be more than enough to make people think.

If you get beyond the frou-frou and the tendency for modern directors to give the work some sort of outrageous contemporary slant, then what we have is typical Venetian opera. Half-sex comedy, half serious testing of relationships.

In the comic corner there is the usual elderly woman, Lenia (sung by a man) who is still desperate for sex. There are young page boy/valets (Zotico and Nerbulone) who are keen to help their betters in their intrigues, one of whom (Nerbulone) is quite prepared to pretend to like the old lady. They are generally comic, but have serious moments.

In the serious corner there are two couples, (Alessandro and Eritrea, Giuliano and Gemmira) desperately in love with each other, but whose love is seriously undermined, tested and generally interfered with by Eliogabalo, the imperious king who is impervious to reasonable behaviour. The two couples are always serious and never comic, Cavalli makes sure that we take their plight very seriously. There is also a third heroine (Atilia) who takes things far more lightly and is permanently on the look out for a man. Cavalli takes her seriously, but makes it clear that she takes love far lighter and where she can.

Sitting between these two groups is Eliogabalo. He is not strictly a comic character, but his actions are so outrageous and they are facilitated the comic characters Lenia and Zotico. But Eliogabalo can't be completely comic, we must believe that he is dangerous enough for both Giuliano and Alessandro to not dare to confront him about his stealing their loved ones.

The opera opens with Eliogabalo getting tired of Eritrea and looking round for another woman. He then makes three attempts to get Gemmira into his bed. At the end of Act 1 he disguises himself as woman and holds and all female senate. At the end of Act 2 he has Alessandro and Gemmira to dinner and tries to poison Alessandro and give Gemmira and love potion. In Act 3 he holds a gladiatorial games, attended by Alessandro and Giuliano, whilst he attempts Gemmira's virtue. In each case he fails, and fails in a way which is comic, almost farcical. Cavalli is playing with us, mixing comedy and tragedy, as did most of the Venetian operas of the period.

This is something which can be difficult to bring off. There is A LOT of plot, crammed into over two and a half hours of music. Also there are a lot of characters. Cavalli keeps things moving, recitative and arioso lead into short arias, always the music is flexibly on the move. A problem, for me, was that Cavalli's music was not always completely interesting. If you have ever been to a moderately uncut version of Monteverdi's L'Incoronazione di Poppea then you will get the idea of what the plot and the music is like, except that Monteverdi is a master at turning out wondrous little arias which ravish the soul. In Eliogabalo Cavalli only manages this once at the end.

In part 2 of this article I will consider how David Fielding's production at Grange Park Opera managed to get over all these hurdles.

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