Some 340 years after its Venetian premiere, Francesco Cavalli’s florid tale of confused love amidst Ancient Roman politics is given its first UK performances at Hampshire’s idyllic Grange Park. The reason for the opera’s withdrawal after perhaps just one performance in 1668 is uncertain.
Was it censorship, with the story of a corrupt emperor too near the Venetian knuckle, or was it perhaps just too old hat for a public hungry for new and exciting styles. Director David Fielding certainly addresses the latter problem for today by giving us a production that is modern and trendy to the point of cliché. He throws in every contemporary reference you can think of: a flash canary-yellow sports car, motorbike (complete with droopy-moustachioed Village People rider), a coke dispensing machine (cola, that is), copies of Playgirl, pole-dancers, and the list goes on.
Fielding works to his own designs and he’s chosen a sterile environment for the overlapping love stories to unfold, a white-tiled, claustrophobic building that could be a mausoleum or mortuary but which brings to mind most of all a public convenience. Maybe it’s a comment on what a toilet Ancient Rome was.
The libretto concentrates less on political shenanigans than a complicated pattern of relationships. The emperor Eliogabalo has stolen Eritea from Giuliano (these two still love each other) but got bored with her and is now after Gemmira, who is in love with the emperor’s cousin Alessandro (he loves her back). Attilia is also in love with Alessandro.
There are quirky episodes, such as Eliogabalo’s setting up of an all female senate, which descends into confusion with a bizarre game of blind man’s buff (the emperor is among them en travesti). There’s knockabout humour too, Act 2 ending with a swooping attack by doom-laden owls, comedy Fielding plays to the full.
What he concentrates on otherwise is sexual ambiguity, at the expense of cruelty and debauchery. With the usual early opera convention of cross-dressing tenor as comedy nurse, two mezzo trouser roles – and the butchest character (James Laing’s Guiliano) as counter-tenor, Cavalli provides plenty of opportunities and Fielding plays it all to the hilt.
He throws in some extra confusion, the biggest of which is the portrayal of Eliogabalo as not a woman playing a man (sometimes playing a woman) but as a woman who makes no attempt to disguise her natural femininity and beauty. Renata Pokupic has a voluptuous mezzo and acts with commitment and verve but, dressed as a bunny girl (that’s the sort of emperor Eliogabalo was), she shows off an amazing figure, which makes it very difficult for us to remember she’s supposed to be a man. Confused? I know I was.
That may be the point, of course, but it seems one taken too far. Julia Riley as the war-like Alessandro does go down the path of male impersonation and does it very well but casting a young attractive male (Tom Walker) as the nurse Lenia, who is constantly referred to as an ugly old bat, removes a layer of comedy potential.
The strengths are musical, with a spirited performance by Christian Curnyn and his Early Opera Company orchestra on period instruments and uniformly strong singing. Claire Booth and Sinead Campbell-Wallace are both appealing as the abused female leads and there are camp cavortings from Ashley Catling’s Zotico (the emperor’s pimp boyfriend) and Joao Fernandes’ Nerbulone, whose clowning ends in a shockingly bloody death.
The opera bears more than a passing resemblance to The Coronation of Poppaea but lacks Monteverdi’s psychological depth, throwing the older composer’s superiority into sharp relief. Nevertheless, it looks as though Cavalli’s time is coming and the production makes a major contribution to his very welcome renaissance.
Eliogabalo plays at Grange Park Opera on 6, 14, 21, 26 June, 2, 5 July. Tickets on 01962 73 73 66 or grangeparkopera.co.uk