(Opéra de Paris at Palais Garnier, 25 September 2016)
Please forgive the recent silence. This last week was extremely busy which, on one hand, means there was no time to write new posts, but on the other means that you have a glut of them coming up. First off is the most glamorous and exciting event: my trip to the Paris Opéra to see their new production of Cavalli’s Eliogabalo. This was the result of a last-minute (and very expensive) fit of spontaneity, and luckily it turned out that Eliogabalo was just my cup of tea. Focused on a lascivious, unpredictable ruler with a penchant for stealing other people’s girlfriends, it sounds at first very much like Xerxes.
The difference, of course, is that Xerxes is very firmly a comedy and, while Eliogabalo has its comic moments, it’s a tragedy to its core. Perhaps that comes as no surprise when you consider its subject. The Roman emperor Heliogabalus only managed to rule for four years before his depravity and unpredictability led to his murder at the tender age of eighteen. If the essays in the programme are anything to go by, Heliogabalus makes Nero look like a saint. Indeed, the emperor has made his deepest impact on British culture through Laurence Alma-Tadema’s immense painting The Roses of Heliogabalus, which I wrote about last year, and which shows the young emperor watching happily from a dais as his unsuspecting dinner guests are suffocated to death by an avalanche of rose petals.
There’s only the faintest scattering of rose petals here, as we focus in on the thwarted affections of the doomed ruler. It’s worth noting that, despite being written in 1667, Eliogabalo only received its premiere in 1999. Yes, you read that correctly. It was meant to be performed during the Venetian carnival season in 1668, but it was rejected at the last minute, and lingered unloved and unperformed for 330 years. I can understand why it might not have fitted the light mood of the carnival. It’s a dark story and this production, directed by Thomas Jolly and with costumes by Gareth Pugh, takes that literally. It serves up a nightmarish dystopia with a limited palette of black, white, blue and gold, where bars of light evoke the fear and oppression of Eliogabalo’s rule.
Much had been made of the ‘rock concert lighting’ and I was afraid that it’d be intrusive and overdone, but in fact it worked extremely well. The costumes, too, were surprisingly sensible despite the exaggerated silhouettes. While stylised, they had an ancient vibe – mantles and long chitons – and so, quite contrary to expectations, this wasn’t the kind of mad regie that I’d feared.
As the opera opens, Eliogabalo (Franco Fagioli) returns to Rome to find that his cousin and junior co-ruler Alessandro (Paul Groves) has put down a rebellion of the Pretorian Guard. Pardoning his soldiers, the young emperor turns his attention to much more important matters: satisfying the lusts of the flesh. In his quest for nubile young women, he’s helped by his old bawd of a nurse, Lenia (Emiliano Gonzalez Toro, who’s cornered the market in comedy Baroque nurses) and his sinister servant Zotico (Matthew Newlin). But first the emperor has to brush aside his past conquests. He’s greeted by the discarded Eritea (Elin Rombo), who allowed her virtue to be conquered by promises of marriage and who now begs Eliogabalo to honour his oath. Needless to say, the emperor intends to do nothing of the sort and is thoroughly bored by her.
Luckily for Eritea, she has been loved for a long time by the romantic Giuliano (Valer Sabadus), the commander of the Pretorian Guard. He’s noble enough to overlook the small matter of imperial ravishment. ‘Without consent there is no loss of honour,’ he reassures her. Bless him. Little does Giuliano know that Eliogabalus’ gaze has moved closer to home, to Giuliano’s own sister Gemmira (Nadine Sierra). This is bad news for Alessandro, who loves Gemmira and wants to marry her. As the emperor comes up with an increasingly extreme series of seduction attempts, it’ll be up to Alessandro, Gemmira, Eritea and Giuliano to ensure that everyone ends up with the right partner.
But Eliogabalo doesn’t fail for want of trying. He convenes a Senate of women, for the sole purpose of getting them to play a kind of blindfolded kiss chase, in which he – dressed as a woman – takes part (this is based on historical ‘fact’). He dreams up a banquet where Gemmira will be drugged with opium, and Alessandro will be poisoned. And, finally, he turns to the old stalwart: having Alessandro ‘accidentally’ killed on a feast day at the Colosseum by a rogue gladiator. Say what you like about Eliogabalo, but his imagination can’t be faulted. It’s just (un)fortunate that things keep getting in the way. Just as he’s cornered Gemmira at the Senate, he’s interrupted by the horrified Eritea who drags up that tiny issue of promising to marry her. His grand banquet is interrupted by a flock of owls (any opera which includes the line, ‘O gods! what ghastly owls!’ deserves an immediate thumbs-up). And the gladiator attack? Well, I can’t tell you the entire plot, but suffice it to say that things don’t quite turn out as Eliogabalo planned.
Although the set is very simple – formed from sliding platforms and staircases – there were a couple of striking setpieces. In one scene, lithe young men in loincloths drape themselves over the steps of a bath, while Eliogabalo immerses himself in a tub of molten gold, like something from a particularly decadent Caravaggio. In another, that flock of owls becomes an elegant snippet of choreography as feather-fluffed dancers twist and sweep their wings. Eliogabalo’s costumes – ample robes, mantles with golden sunbursts on blue, and sun-disc collars – keep up a constant series of visual references to this Sun King avant la lettre (the name ‘Heliogabalus’ is a compound formed from the name of the Syrian sun-god, Egabalus, to whom the emperor was devoted, and the Greek sun-god Helios). The whole thing, despite its austerity, is visually impressive.
The vast majority of the cast were unknown to me and I was pleased to discover some fine new voices. As the comic servant Nerbulone, the bass Scott Conner was brilliant both vocally and dramatically. Whether providing a commentary on events, or weighing up the benefits of accepting the lusty Lenia’s advances – she’s old, but rich – he brought a warm, naturalistic humour to his scenes and I always found myself smiling when he came on. Yet again I find myself warming to the kind of comic character I used to dislike, but I think Nerbulone works so well here because the production itself is very artistic and stylised, and he brings a down-to-earth humanity to the halls of Eliogabalo’s palace. Like Elviro in Xerxes, he’s the salt of the earth, with no time for the highfalutin preoccupations of his social superiors. Give him a jug of wine, and he’ll be happy. (And it’s thanks to this, as much as the ‘ghastly owls’ that Eliogabalo’s nefarious banquet plans are spoiled.)
Paul Groves’s tenor Alessandro was, I suppose, technically the secondo uomo and he gave a strong performance of a role which didn’t require much character complexity: his brief was to be noble, loving and good. He certainly looked the part, with a Greek-style wig and beard, and his blue-and-white chiton matching significantly with Gemmira’s blue-and-white gown. You know you’re made for each other when you wear the same palette. As Gemmira herself, Nadine Sierra took a while to make her impression on me. She was good, no doubt of that, but at first I thought she was just another accomplished soprano. Then, in Act 2, as Gemmira laments her fate, she pulled an absolute blast of a note out of the bag at the end (I think) of Alessandro, ove sei?
I’ve no idea whether this note was historically correct or not, but as it rang long and defiant around the auditorium, it sounded like something from a rock ballad – maybe that was the influence of the lighting coming into play. For once, however, I’m going to shrug and ask who cares whether it was appropriate or not. It was a fantastic moment and it brought Sierra the spontaneous applause of the crowd, on a night when everyone was being well behaved and only applauding at the end of each act. Her mellow, rounded voice is certainly one to look out for, as I suspect she sounds even more interesting when singing in other styles.
Of the two other women, Eritea and Atilia Macrina, it was Atilia who made the impression. I didn’t mention her in the synopsis because she’s a rather minor character, essentially a kind of Atalanta, a bubbly Roman girl determined to find herself a husband no matter what her chosen candidates think. Mariana Flores gave Atilia a bright, soubrettish appeal and her bell-like voice was a joy to listen to. I picked her out as a favourite when I saw her in the Elena DVD two years ago, and she evidently still has that special appeal. While Elin Rombo’s Eritea was gently, sensitively sung, I didn’t really find the character interesting enough to care about her a great deal. Poor Rombo is condemned to do little except waft around looking tragic in her white chiton, and her love for Giuliano – which is supposed to move us – is undermined by her willingness to go back to Eliogabalo should he come through on his offer of marriage. The character simply isn’t all that well defined.
Sabadus was the main reason I decided to go to Eliogabalo, with Fagioli as a bit of a bonus (I’d forgotten he was in it until just after I booked). However, I’ve seen them both on better form, each for different reasons. Fagioli’s acting was very strong and he brought great relish to his role as the emperor, managing to combine Eliogabalo’s predatory debauchery with a surprising naivete. For me, the slight problem was in his style of singing – and perhaps this simply reflects my ignorance about the practice of the time. He seemed to add in a lot of high Baroque flourishes and the kind of mini-cadenzas he often tucks in at the end of his grandstanding swagger arias, and this sounded wrong to my ears, just as it sounds wrong when someone sings Baroque in a belcanto style. I also thought that his voice has become much heavier on the vibrato, which felt intrusive here and made Cavalli’s simple, clean lines somewhat fussier than they should have been. When I first started listening to Fagioli’s singing, I was impressed by the variety of styles he could adopt. It seems that in the last year or so, he’s become less and less adventurous in the way that he sings, weighing everything down with trills and texture – and his diction remains fuzzy. I’d really like to see him simplify his voice a little, so that it serves the demands of the music, rather than vice versa.
Sabadus always loses a bit of power on his lower notes, but his Giuliano sounded as angelic and tortured as anyone could desire: his voice fits this kind of music very well. The problem was that we didn’t really hear that much of him: Giuliano is a relatively minor character. How I wished Cavalli had given him a bit more to chew on! As it was, Sabadus didn’t have much to do except stand in one place and look conflicted. He does this very prettily, of course, but I just expected a bit more. In a high Baroque opera, the Commander of the Pretorian Guard would doubtless have a couple of flashy arias, but Cavalli makes him an almost self-effacing presence. So self-effacing, in fact, that he has to be thoroughly henpecked by his sister Gemmira and his lover Eritea in order to shame him into action against Eliogabalo. Essentially he’s the prototype of the virtuous but slightly colourless Noble Baroque Hero™. In an ideal world, Sabadus would have had some of Fagioli’s swagger and Fagioli would have had some of Sabadus’s serenity.
To conclude, just a couple of things that struck me about the storytelling of the opera. For a story about a man preying on women, the female characters come out of Eliogabalo very strongly. For all her lack of morals, Lenia is the one providing her cherished nurseling with a parade of women to keep him diverted. She’s the one who reels in the unsuspecting prey, promising the poor girls that she is on their side; that she’ll defend them against the emperor’s lusts. The moment when the balance of power changes in the third act doesn’t actually involve Eliogabalo at all: it’s the point when Gemmira and Eritea confront Lenia and unmask her for the double-dealing panderer she is. Similarly, Gemmira struck me as a very forceful character, the prototype of the self-aware, short-tempered noble ladies from later operas. She might be tricked by the Senate scam, but she’s on her guard thereafter, and she’s the one who eventually persuades her recalcitrant brother into doing the right thing for Rome.
Gemmira and Eritea have to face facts: they can’t rely on men to protect them, because Giuliano and Alessandro are powerless in the face of Eliogabalo. If they want to have autonomy and to choose their own lovers, they are the ones who have to act. What follows is a brief spoiler. In the final scene, when Gemmira comes on drenched in blood and carrying Eliogabalo’s severed head, I didn’t believe her story of a patrol saving her from attempted rape. No: here I saw an outraged women taking her revenge: a Judith luring in her noble seducer and attacking at the moment of his greatest weakness. If we see it that way, then the story isn’t just about a great emperor being deposed, but it’s about women using their wit to bring men to account.
One final point. Eliogabalo is an antihero, of course – there’s no doubt of it – but the opera suggests that to some extent he is also a victim of the situation. I was surprised by his sudden vulnerability in Act III, where he believes that Gemmira has come willingly to him. In the arietta Alba, deh, ruggiadosa, we see a different side of Eliogabalo: gentle, loving, overcome by beauty. It is such a gorgeous little piece of music that for a moment you feel pity for this unfortunate man, who revels in anticipation of a love that you know will never be given. All at once, we see beyond the shell of the omnipotent emperor and glimpse a wounded, lonely soul longing to be loved and hardly able to believe that it might happen. I’m glad that Jolly’s direction chose to focus on this moment for a few minutes, because it made what followed – the inevitable end – more poignant than it’d have been otherwise.
Well, I’ve written more than enough. As you can tell, I had a great time. It was a genuine delight to see such an early opera – featuring two countertenors, at that – being taken seriously by one of the great houses, and to see only a few scattered empty seats in the vast auditorium. Heartfelt thanks to the Palais Garnier for screening dual-language surtitles in French and English, which made my experience much more intelligible than I’d feared. And some news for anyone out there who’s interested in this production: apparently Eliogabalo will be broadcast on Culturebox on 7 October, and on France Musique on 16 October. Fingers crossed that someone is able to record the video broadcast on YouTube, as I’ll be spending 7 October several thousand feet in the air over Mongolia and Russia, and it’d be lovely to watch it again more closely.
The Palais Garnier is such a wonderful place: the interiors are as much of a draw as the operas themselves! During the intervals, you can wander through glorious gilded rooms hung with chandeliers and mirrors and painted with sweeping mythological scenes. The auditorium is a feast of gold and red velvet and, as you watch the chattering classes lingering on the marble staircases sipping champagne during the breaks, it’s very easy to sigh and think, ‘Yes: this is the life!’