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Seen and Heard International Festival Review

Aspen Music Festival (12): Cavalli's Eliogabalo (North American debut), Aspen Opera Theater, Wheeler Opera House, Aspen, Colo. 15.8.2007 (HS)


Aspen Opera Theater took a big risk putting on Francesco Cavalli's 17th-century opera "Eliogabalo." And it had nothing to do with the circumstances that snuffed out any performances in the Venetian composer's lifetime. Simply put, the opera wing of the Aspen Music Festival had never undertaken anything like this.

Unlike "Giasone," a seldom-heard Cavalli opera the festival staged two years ago, this music had no performing edition available. Jane Glover, the British-born conductor of the Chicago Baroque Ensemble, worked from a sketchy score, essentially the vocal lines and a figured bass, preserved in a Venice library. Glover, whose academic work was on Cavalli, developed the score for instruments typical of the time, essentially a string quartet, a couple of harpsichords, lutes, theorbos (which are like jumbo lutes) and guitars.

"It's almost like doing jazz," she said at a public discussion of the opera a week earlier. The musicians fleshed out the sketchy score in rehearsal, and performed it with panache under Glover's expressive conducting.

The opera calls for a large cast, with nine key roles, making it ideal for a student opera program with lots of available singers. But how would audiences react to the early Baroque style in an opera that has had only two previous productions anywhere. What opened Tuesday at the Wheeler Opera House constituted a North American premiere.

The opening night audience heard a flesh-and-blood evening of musical theater. The lurid story, dealing with rape, perversion, sexual politics and intrigue, involved well-developed characters (in modern dress) playing effective drama and comedy against a beautiful set dominated by a scale-down Roman triple-arch. The audience stayed through the entire two hours 40 minutes, which shows how something so unfamiliar can entertain so well.

Cavalli set music for dramatic scenes brilliantly, but wrote nothing like a fully developed aria or ensemble. It's mostly what you might call heightened recitative. The music occasionally rises to an actual melody, but the tunes seldom repeat. They just moves on to the next dramatic moment.

It's often lovely, especially in the duets and the few ensembles. Wisely, Cavalli ends the opera with a quiet, beautifully constructed (if short) quartet involved the two main pairs of lovers.

How they get to that ending is a long, sordid and complicated tale. The title character, a sort of cross between Nero and Caligula, lusts after the gorgeous Flavia Gemmira, even though he has promised marriage to the persistent Eritea. But Gemmira loves Alessandro, Eliogabalo's noble cousin, and Eritea loves Giuliano, the dour captain of the guard.

Eliogabalo conspires with his henchmen, Lenia and Zotico, to make Gemmira his conquest, and has no hesitation ordering the murder of Alessandro to make it happen. Meanwhile, the pretty but airheaded Atilia is after Alessandro and the handsome palace dogsbody Nerbulone seems to get involves in all the machinations.

In the end, Eliogabalo is offed (offstage), Alessandro ascends to the throne and pairs off with Gemmira. And Eritea links up with Giuliano.

Women sing all five of those roles. However, tenor Alex Mansoori portrays Lenia, done up like Edna Turnblad in "Hairspray," wearing high heels, matronly dresses and lavender hair. He is hilarious, but his portrayal also carries the dramatic story forward. He also sings the music with great presence and clarity. He steals every scene he is in.

The other voice that jumps out of this generally strong cast is that of Carin Gilfrey. Carrying a live accessory, a cute white pooch (which was extraordinarily well behaved), her
Paris Hilton-esque Atilia opens her mouth and out comes a strong, agile mezzo-soprano that invests the music with extra depth.

In the title role, Cecelia Hall wields a soft-edged mezzo-soprano that melds well with the other singers' and cultivates an appropriately louche demeanor. As Alessandro, soprano Christin Wismann brings aristocratic bearing and lithe sound to the proceedings. Ariana Wyatt displays the dazzling alabaster looks and flexible soprano to make Gemmira a believable target for the randy Eliogabalo. And Ellen PutneyMoore, done up in a dark, severe men's suit and slicked-back hair, conveys the conflicted Giuliano with a plangent mezzo-soprano.

In the smaller roles, mezzo-soprano Sarah Larsen, in thigh-high spike-heeled black boots and some sort of 23rd-century sculpted hairdo, makes Zotico suitably serpentine. And bass-baritone David Keck, rolling around the stage on a scooter, holds down the bass register in the score with a vivid personality.

Credit Edward Berkeley for the staging and preparing this cast admirably to bring off all the drama and some wonderful bits of comedy. A scene with espresso cups still has me giggling.

It's not hard to see why Cavalli's 60 operas held the stage in 17th-century Venice. With the help of a committed cast and a conductor who understands how to draw out the music, it's doing just fine in the 21st.

Harvey Steiman

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