The inventive use of light does justice to the cult of the sun. Helios will be satisfied with this Eliogabalo, a co-production of the Dutch National Opera with the Opéra National de Paris.
Considering the outracious material that a theater-maker can draw from when it comes to a piece about Eliogabalo, Cavalli's opera plays it rather safe. Yet the original opera was rejected by his patrons and it had to wait more than 300 years for his world premiere (which it eventually got in 1999 in Crema, the birthplace of Cavalli). This rejection was probably due to the time and place of conception (Venice in the 17th century where Jesuits had a severe influence on social and cultural life). The obvious associations with nepotism, the abundant presence of prostitution and the murder of an emperor were all just a little too much for the establishment of Venice at the time.
... the most cruel and infamous wretch that ever disgraced humanity and polluted a throne ...
Thomas Jolly already had some experience with royal dramas. He directed Shakespeare's Henry VI (all three parts in a 18-hour marathon performance!) and Richard III. For Eliogabalo he goes further back in time and broadens his horizon with his first opera production.
As said, Jolly adds some elements from Eliogabalo's biography to his staging. Most likely apocryphal is the story about the banquet in which the sun child buried his guests in violets and other flowers, so that some of them actually choked to death, being unable to crawl out to the top. The scene inspired Lawrence Adema-Tadema to his most famous painting (The Roses of Heliogabalo) and Louis' Fantomas' Feuillade to his film 'The Roman Orgy'. Thomas Jolly adds the power flower, this rain of roses, (which is not mentioned in the libretto) to the banquet at the end of the second act in which Eliogabalo tries to poison his cousin Alessandro. (An attempt destined to fail because cousin-dear doesn't show up.)
A year ago, this production of Cavalli's opera was premiered in Paris and, like then, the baton in Amsterdam is held by Leonardo García Alarcón (a researcher in the field of Baroque music, I already drowned most pleasantly in 'Il Diluvio' of Falvetti, a piece he saved from obscurity). And like in Paris, the leading role is sung by Argentine Franco Fagioli.
Eliogabalo, an opera from the early days of the genre, is small scaled. Chamber music kind in design. It was originally endowed with no more than 5 or 6 musicians. This production has transformed that small scale to the big stage of a modern opera house. The orchestra has been extended to about 30 musicians. The past is reflected in the staging by a small staircase that enters in the orchestral pit. The stairs, used as an extra stage left opportunity for the singers who mingle with the members of the orchestra, is a concertant element in a fully staged production.
Led by the orchestra, Eliogabalo is a baroque procession - in steady pace and a transluctant, organic sound - in which historical instruments see their story accompinied by modern, spectacular images in the scenery of Thibaut Fack and the beautifully dressed singers by Gareth Pugh. After more than three centuries the music – with its baroque-styled features that are mirrored in the singers' acting – has not diminished in expressiveness. Along the long lines of recitatives, half-aria's and arias, the listener is drawn in the story that lasts for more than three hours. But length is a strength, it's like staring at a pendulum (something not unknown to devotees of Wagneroperas). It's like a tour in a world where you find yourself in the capable hands of reliable guides. It is not until the third act – where the story is entirely focused on the two love couples - that the attention drops. Before Eliogabalo ends up in the orchestral pit with a severed head (spoiler alert), the long arch of music and storyline loses its momentum. The recitatives get a little bit stuck in staccato and the possibilities to add something spicy from Eliogabalo's biography to the production seem to have faded. However, with an enthralling end, worthy of a Salome-staging and a convincing cast it does not keep this production away from a final judgement surrounded by accolades that, for this occasion, smells of flowers.
Thomas Jolly adds the power flower, this rain of roses, (which is not mentioned in the libretto) to the banquet at the end of the second act in which Eliogabalo tries to poison his cousin Alessandro.
Louis Couperus (The Mountain of Light - 1906)
12 - 26 October 2017