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Cavalli’s Eliogabalo: An opera that needed rescuing…out of The Box

imgresimgresThe pickup truck pulled up alongside me and my bicycle  on 47th Street in need of directions: “Where’s that street with all the strip clubs?”

“You’re asking the wrong guy,” I said. And before I could disqualify myself by claiming to be gay, the driver’s head snapped the other direction and was off.

In retrospect, that moment began my karmic payback for being so dismissive toward some guys with a simple need for risqué fun. Weeks later, I was in such a place, not wanting to be there, and discovering the meaning of that old adage: “The main purpose of a strip club is to separate you from your money.”

I was there for an opera, of all things – and it turned into my most uncongenial theater experience since sitting through Porgy and Bess in front of a woman afflicted with Tourette’s Syndrome.

The occasion was the closing night (March 29) of Eliogabalo, a recently discovered 1668 opera by Francesco Cavalli, a composer I would get on an airplane to hear. The price of Gotham Chamber Opera’s production was even higher than that. Depicting the debauched Roman ruler who reigned for only a few of his teen-age years before his ambi-sexual obnoxiousness prompted his own guards to put him to death, Eliogabalo  received its New York City premiere at The Box, which isn’t exactly a strip club, but something more expensive and exclusive, with entertainment described on as sexual freak shows (pre-op transsexuals, etc.).

Located  near the Bowery, The Box behaves so much like such a hard-to-find speakeasy that the pizza clerk down the street had never even heard of it. It seems to be a place where tourists walk on the wild side and go home feeling profoundly cool. A brilliant concept, indeed, for Eliogabalo, who offered doctors heaps of gold to turn him into a woman. You could imagine New York City Opera’s George Steel kicking himself and wondering, “Why didn’t I think of that?”

Good thing he didn’t. My guess is that Gotham Chamber Opera didn’t realize the problems with the venue until it was way too late to pull the plug.

The night of the performance, a crowd was gathered outside. You got your pre-ordered tickets from the guy in the red jacket. Immediately, you sensed who worked for whom. The Gotham Chamber Opera people were sweet and a tad apologetic. The bouncer who clearly worked for The Box told you, in what sounded more like a threat than a suggestion, “It’s best if you check your coat at the door.”

Not having wanted to be cool since 1985, I don’t take that suggestion well. And what was supposed to be a full-view standing room ticket – purchased for $50 – afforded me little more than a glimpse of the surtitle screen above a sea of heads; the standing-room “section” was two bits of floor space on either side on an aisle and behind a sort-of-see-through partition.

When I protested, I was told to wait in line for spaces in the balcony to open up – The Box is a re-purposed theater, though a tiny one – after the opera was underway. Somewhere around the second or third scene, we were ushered up the stairs, passing neo-Grecian alcoves with heavy curtains that could be drawn for privacy.

Standing in the very rear and leaning against the bar, the view wasn’t any better, since the people with chairs were standing next to them, having paid much more money than I (tickets were as high as $140) to glimpse the opera. Some person with authority asked them to sit down. The curt answer: “No.” We’d all been through a lot.

The usher parked us one place; the exasperated stage manager ordered us elsewhere. Backstage space is so cramped, apparently, that singers in this 20-member cast had to ascend to the balcony, walk across it and down the left side to make their way onstage. The stage manager was in charge of keeping the way clear. The singers didn’t always cooperate. At least one stopped off to chat with friends in the audience – and still might be there had they not been shushed by those of us who were not their friends.

You might think that a club built for voyeurism would have decent sight lines. Not this one. At intermission, one standee who had actually found a seat reported that she had to twist herself around so severely in order to see that she feared that traction was in her future. A failed strip club? “No! It’s a tease!” said one friend. Remember the words of Gypsy Rose Lee: “Make ‘em beg and then don’t give it to them.”

You might wonder why I didn’t leave. But there comes a point where you ask, “How bad can this get?”

Very bad. The anything-goes air of the venue didn’t have a positive impact on the cast’s artistry. Though the music director was Grant Herreid (a fine musician I know from Piffaro, the Renaissance wind band), the singers – many of the females being topless with glitter on their private parts – overacted, oversang, over-everythinged. Given the racy subjects favored by Cavalli – and the fact that Venetian opera during this period had little of the Zeffirellian grandeur we now associate with the art form – performances shouldn’t be polite. But they should be clear, not clouded by a lot of performance bluster.  From what I could hear, there were moments of hugely expressive lyricism in the music and effective recitatives that are deeply characteristic of Cavalli. He was a great composer, and we only know a fraction of his works.

More, please? But please, someplace else?


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Mystic Maggie

All of the Mystic Maggie Posts are RSS Reader Feeds from around the web. All copyright remains with the original publisher. No copyright is claimed or intended. Where supplied, links back to the original article are included.

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