Wednesday 8 July 2009

Review of Eliogabalo (2)

So how did David Fielding's production at Grange Park Opera do? We saw it on Sunday 5th July, which was its last night so it would certainly have been well run in.

Fielding (who both directed and designed) chose to update the opera to Italy in the 1980's giving it a Euro-trash sort of look. But then, the only other production of the opera that I read about, the one from Brussels, also updated the location to something near the present. Frankly, it would be an interesting novelty to see the opera done in a style approaching that of the 17th century.

The big virtue of Fielding's production was that, whatever was happening on stage, you always knew who everyone was. The three mistresses (or potential mistresses) Eritrea(Claire Booth), Gemmira (Sinead Campbell-Wallace) and Atilia (Yvette Bonner) wore blue, green and red dresses respectively. Giiuliano (James Laing) was always in his army fatigues, Alessandro (Julia Riley) was dressed as Eligabalo's head of security, with shades, a pony tail, dark jacket, white shirt, string tie and huge belt buckle. Riley was a revelation as not only did she look masculine, but she behaved so. She is tall with a slim physique, which of course helps. But she also neatly conveyed the body language; it never felt like a stunt, merely part of the character.

Of the more comic characters Lenia was dressed glamorously with a short white dress and high-heels like some porn fantasy nurse; the big surprise was how brilliantly sexy Tim Walker looked in the role (and he had good legs). I was unclear whether Walker's character was meant to be a transvestite or not, but it didn't matter. My only complaint was that Cavalli intended Lenia to be a comic older woman. Nerbulone (Joao Fernandes) came on wearing the full Village People leather-man gear, complete with a huge moustache. He certainly looked the part, though Fernandes body movements sometimes gave him away as when relaxed he tended to revert to rather too camp a manner. Nerbulone as gay leatherman did not make much sense of the plot, but it certainly made for a striking entrance as Nerbulone arrived on motorcycle (of which more later). Zotico (Ashley Catling) was your typical peroxided gay boy, though Catling did not quite have the figure for it so that he looked less than perfect in pink hot pants. The other drawback with this character was that the historical Eliogabalo was fond of real men, not boys. The Roman's had no problem with an emperor who liked younger men, but if he did so he had to take the active role; it was unseemly (and more) for the Emperor to take the passive role to an older man (bear in mind that Eliogabalo was only 18 when he died).

So far, so good. But Fielding seems to have let the setting rather go to his head. Eliogabalo and Eritrea made their first appearance in a sports car (which seemed to be a fully functioning electric one). This car made a second appearance at the end, draped with the dead bodies! And, as mentioned, Nerbulone made his first entrance on a motorcycle. Two different people commented to me that this was one of the most camp productions that they had seen in a long time. At one point selections of sex toys appear; Fielding seems to have been constantly trying to find new, startling things for Lenia and Zotico to do. These two act as co-conspirators and henchmen in the plotting so they get lots of comic scenes to do together.

Still, Fielding kept the capers well away from the serious characters. To his credit, you never felt that he was trying to find things to keep us amused when the serious plot was going on. He always took these characters seriously and allowed the singers to convey the real pain that was felt. There were lots of laughs in the production, but Fielding could keep things quiet when he needed to.

I think that the main miscalculation was in the staging of the female senate scene at the end of Act 1. The idea of this is as a cover to allow Eliogabalo to seduce Gemmira. Presumably on the basis that Gemmira was too high minded to fall for anything else. Fielding chose to stage it as some sort of Bunny Girl pole dancing competition. Though the scene was funny, it did not make complete dramatic sense and added to the feeling of unnecessary camp which Fielding brought to the production.

The other area where the updating did note help the logic of the drama was in the way Eritrea's plight came out. Eritrea loves Giuliano, but she is desperate for Eliogabalo to marry her because he has stained her reputation by kissing her in public. So even though Eliogabalo has dropped her, she spends the remainder of the opera chasing him, trying to get him to marry her despite loving Giuliano. This might have made sense to a 17th century audience, though I wonder. But moving the plot to the 20th century means that this made no sense to a modern audience.

That said, the set piece at the end of Act 2 (the meal at which Eliogabalo intends to poison Alessandro and seduce Gemmira) descends into complete farce apparently according to Cavalli's intentions. Nerbulone (who is acting as waiter) drinks all of the love potion and falls asleep thus failing to go and get Alessandro. And the meal is abandoned because owls appear (a bad omen evidently). Fielding's handling of this scene was adept, building the tension as the farce developed. Similarly the gladiator fight was well done, if a little over the top. But quite how you stage a gladiator fight without it being over the top, I am not sure. The set here though, added to this impact as it involved a huge statue of a woman with multiple breasts, a sort of anthropomorphic version of the she wolf who suckled Romulus and Remus. Logical though this may have been, it was one of those over the top touches which I think should have been toned down.

All this might have worked, if the title role had been filled with something like the charisma and terror which Eliogabalo needs to inspire. Renata Pokupic sang beautifully and captured something of Elogabalo's bad boy image. But she had nothing of Julia Riley's ability to convey Eliogabalo's masculinity and nothing of the real intensity which the character should have. In the opening scenes she was costumed in a way which was obviously intended to convey rock star glam, but really only came over as looking like Lulu on a bad day. The subsequent acts were better, but Pokupic's quasi masculine posturing too often seemed put on.

This would not have mattered if Pokupic could created a character that it was credible that others would be frightened of. This just didn't happen. Like that other despot of uncertain temperament, Tamerlano, Eliogabalo needs to have us believe that he can and will do anything, including cowing grown men. No matter how beautifully Pokupic sang we didn't believe this. And it was telling that Pokupic seemed far more comfortable in female guise at the end of Act 1.

Claire Booth was a moving Eritrea, desperately torn between Giuliano and Eliogabalo. And Sinead Campbell was profoundly moving as Gemmira, the woman who does not want to be loved by Eliogabalo. Similarly as their respective lovers, both James Laing and Julia Riley were admirable. Each pair of lovers was given the chance to be a little gut wrenching, and there were so admirably whilst staying within the confines of Cavalli's musical style. Yvette Bonner's Atilia did not, I think, quite manage the tricky divide of style that she has, hovering between serious and comic, it didn't help that she had a couple of lapses in tuning.

The bevy of comic parts were also well sung, though Fielding's direction meant we were more often laughing at antics rather than listening to the singing.

Christian Curnyn was in the pit conducting a period band. They accompanied well and filled Grange Park Opera's small theatre quite vividly. Along the way there was some fine solo playing.

At the end of the opera, Cavalli cops out and unlike Handel, who daringly has Bajazet commit suicide on stage at the end of Tamerlano, Cavalli dispatches Eliogabalo, Lenia and Zotica off stage. We learn of it just in a narration. But Fielding obviously felt that this was not enough, so that the narrations were accompanied by a great deal of gore and the dead bodies of the three, draped across the sports car (this time driven by Atilia). Quite a coup, but the music just did not seem to chime with the visual images.

This mismatch between visuals and audio was something that at least three different people mentioned to me about the production. Whilst I had no problem hearing an authentically performed and sung 17th century Venetian opera whilst looking at a modern farce/gore-fest, others seem to have found the discrepancy too much. There was more than one comment that they could look at the stage or listen to the music, but not both.

I am not convinced that Eliogabalo is one of Cavalli's finest operas. And despite the fact that David Fielding was keen to direct it at Grange Park, you get the feeling that he chose it more for the outrageous possibilities the plot gave him than for any intrinsic merit. To often Fielding seemed to be hurrying us along, making sure we didn't stop too long and get bored.

For me the best bit was at the end, where the two pair of surviving lovers have a glorious duet. Cavalli at his best.

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