Eliogabalo (Heliogabalus)

Francesco Cavalli Eliogabalo

British fashion designer Gareth Pugh — known for his sculptural and experimental aesthetic — has designed over 60 costumes for the “Eliogabalo” opera at the Palais Garnier in Paris.
A dramatic tale of sex, power and greed, it launched the Paris opera season on September 16, the night before Pugh’s Spring-Summer 2017 fashion show in London.
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While the links between opera and fashion may not immediately be clear, Pugh has managed to seamlessly connect the two, using the plot of “Eliogabalo” as inspiration for his runway collection.
“The character that the opera portrays, there’s so much richness there that it kind of felt a shame to not investigate that further,” he explained. “It’s recontextualizing the opera and showing it to a different audience.”

Written in 1667 by Italian composer Francesco Cavalli, the opera is based on the life of the Roman child emperor Heliogabalus, who anointed himself a sun god and was known for overt displays of wealth, power and sexuality. (Think color-themed banquets, extreme orgies and subversive street parades).
Despite the age of the play and its historical context, Pugh was keen to place his designs within a conceptual reality, rather than referencing a specific time period.
Costumes have a sculptural quality, with recurring sun motifs and references to the chaos symbol — eight arrows leading out from a central point — representing the destructive power of the central character. This was echoed in the fashion collection.

Joining the dots between these two different disciplines is no easy feat, but the response from critics has been positive.
Fashion journalist Suzy Menkes commented in her review for Vogue.co.uk: “We have seen Gareth’s dramatic presentations many times in his 11 year career — his shows moved from Paris to London after the first decade — and his graphic fashion language is now familiar. But this season, the way he turned grandeur into drama while keeping the show under control, was masterly.”

While this is his first foray into opera, Pugh is no stranger to the stage. He collaborated with choreographer Wayne McGregor on the ballet “Carbon Life” at the Royal Opera House in London in 2012, and “Alea Sands” at the Palais Garnier last December.
The designer himself studied ballet as a child and spent a few summers as a teenager attending costume courses at the National Youth Theatre’s London ateliers.

But despite these experiences, “Eliogabalo” seems to have resonated particularly with Pugh, who believes the tale is highly relevant today.
“Thinking about the story of this arrogant, petulant child who’s been given the seat of all power and (the fact that) the greed that drives him is his ultimate downfall, I thought that was quite interesting with regards to what’s going on in America,” he says.
“For me, it just feels very apt and culturally relevant in a wider context.”
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.
Francesco Cavalli schreef Eliogabalo in 1667, ongeveer tien jaar voor zijn dood. Het werk werd tijdens zijn leven nooit opgevoerd en beleefde pas in 1999 zijn première. De Nationale Opera brengt de opera in coproductie met de Opéra national de Paris, waar het een jaar geleden met succes werd opgevoerd.

De titelheld Eliogabalo is zeer losjes gebaseerd op de Romeinse keizer Heliogabalus, die in 218 op veertienjarige leeftijd door allerlei machinaties het hoogste Romeinse ambt in de schoot geworpen kreeg. Vier jaar later werd hij vermoord. Zijn ambtsperiode wordt gezien als één van de meest ontluisterende uit de Romeinse historie.

Cavalli’s opera concentreert zich op de verhouding van deze tiener tot de vrouwen in zijn omgeving. Daardoor ontstaat een uitvergrote karikatuur van een soort Don Giovanni avant la lettre. Dat zal zeker een kant van het verhaal zijn geweest, maar daarmee wordt voorbijgegaan aan het feit dat de jonge despoot al voor zijn verheffing tot keizer hogepriester was van het heiligdom van Heligabalus in Esmene, het huidige Homs in Syrië. Hier werd de zonnegod vereerd, ook wel bekend als Sol Invictus Heliogabalus. De keizer ontleende zijn ‘roepnaam’ dus aan de godheid in wiens dienst hij was.

De nieuwbakken keizer nam zijn god, de specifieke eredienst en zijn in Romeinse ogen exotische, oriëntaalse gebruiken mee naar Rome en maakte Sol Invictus tot oppergod, aan wie alle andere goden ondergeschikt waren. Daardoor kon de keizer ook rustig een Vestaalse maagd trouwen, aangezien haar religieuze status in zijn beleving niet langer ter zake deed. Koppel dit aan een oriëntaals fenomeen als tempelprostitutie, denk aan de cultus van de Syrische godin Astarte, en de ingrediënten voor een kritische biografie van keizer Heliogabalus liggen voor het oprapen.

In Cavalli’s opera is Eliogabalo vooral een ondeugende tiener met vervelende trekjes. Hij probeert bijna wanhopig de gunsten van verschillende vrouwen te winnen en wordt daarbij geholpen door zijn vertrouweling Zotico. Deze geeft zijdelings commentaar op wat er van hem verlangd wordt, waardoor zijn rol duidelijk vooruit lijkt te lopen op die van Leporello.

De oude voedster Lenia intrigeert van harte mee. Haar personage wordt gezongen door een man en is verantwoordelijk voor de komische noot in het geheel. Daar had overigens in deze productie wel meer mee gedaan kunnen worden.

Het verloop van de handeling is bij wijlen infantiel en moet zijn kracht duidelijk ontlenen aan de solostukken – aria’s is een te groot woord – waarin de protagonisten hun zielenroerselen kenbaar maken. Doordat er nauwelijks sprake is van muzikale momenten waarin de voortgang volledig wordt stopgezet, kan Eliogabalo bijna een doorgecomponeerde opera worden genoemd, iets wat meestal op het conto van Richard Wagner wordt geschreven.

De keizer interfereert in de liefdesbetrekkingen van twee koppels, Giuliano en Eritea en Alessandro en Gemmira. Giuliano is de prefect, militaire leider, en Alessandro is Eliogabalo’s neef en vertrouweling. Om het verder te compliceren is Gemmira de zus van Giuliano. Zo gecomprimeerd lijkt het sterk op de relaties in Mozarts Clemenza di Tito, alleen stuurt daarin een beminnelijke keizer onbedoeld alles in de war, niet een irritante puber die toevallig te veel macht heeft.

De historische Heliogabalus werd vermoord door zijn lijfwacht en daar kan Cavalli met zijn Eliogabalo niet omheen. De afrekening vindt buiten beeld plaats en ten bewijze komt Gemmira als een soort Salome op in een met bloed bevlekt gewaad, waarin het hoofd van de keizer blijkt gewikkeld. Dat wringt nogal met de luchtige toon van het verhaal tot dan toe. Was het dan toch een antieke versie van The Rocky Horror Show?

De jonge Franse regisseur Thomas Jolly en zijn team hebben gekozen voor een betrekkelijk klein, eenvoudig decor enerzijds en spectaculaire lichteffecten en zeer opvallende kostuums anderzijds. Voortdurend stralen er compacte, witte lichtbundels naar beneden, duidelijk een verwijzing naar de status van Eliogabalo als priester van de zonnegod. Kleurrijke lichtbundels proberen de zaal te omvatten, wat voor het publiek op momenten niet erg prettig is.

Eliogabalo’s pronkgewaad doet sterk Egyptisch aan – denk aan Toetanchamon – wat ook weer naar de zonnegod verwijst. Het geheel biedt een kleurrijk schouwspel, dat de trage voortgang van het geheel – het is per slot van rekening een barokopera – redelijk weet te compenseren: de aandacht wordt vastgehouden.

De muzikale kwaliteit tijdens de première was wisselend. Een kleine bijrol als die van Atilia bracht wat fleur in het geheel. Zij wervelt om de twee liefdesparen heen en Mariana Flores wist dat vocaal aardig tot uitdrukking te brengen. Iets dergelijks kon gezegd worden van het optreden van Scott Conner als Nerbulone. Ook Matthew Newlin als Zotico en Emiliano González Toro als Lenia vervulden hun rollen adequaat.

Van de twee vrouwelijke hoofdrollen beviel Kristina Mkhitaryan als Eritea mij het beste, hoewel ze in de openingsscène nogal moeizaam op gang leek te komen. Nicole Cabell was een goede Gemmira, maar niet opvallend.

aler Sabadus als Giuliano viel mij ronduit tegen. Zijn reputatie als alles kunnende countertenor ten spijt vond ik zijn stem onder de maat; meer piepen dan zingen. Acterend wist hij bovendien geen enkel moment de indruk van een militaire bevelhebber te wekken. Zijn personage werd zodoende de minst ontwikkelde van het geheel.

Tenor Ed Lyon als Alessandro kwam daarentegen als nobele prins zeer geloofwaardig over en was vocaal een genoegen om naar te luisteren.

Franco Fagioli wist goed raad met de titelrol, echter zonder dat hij de voorstelling volledig naar zich toe wist te trekken. Dat is natuurlijk ook lastig. Is hij een schertsfiguur of een moordenaar? Of allebei? Eliogabalo moet het hebben van zijn kostuum en zijn zang, acterend is hij ‘out of sorts’. Fagioli zette in elk geval zingend een mooie titelheld neer en dat was op zich voldoende in deze ruime vocale bezetting: hij hoefde het geheel niet in zijn eentje te dragen.

De Cappella Mediterranea onder leiding van Leonardo García Alarcón zorgde voor een uitstekende begeleiding. Het Koor van De Nationale Opera (ingestudeerd door Ching-Lien Wu) klonk als vanouds prachtig en de zes dansers wisten het geheel op aantrekkelijke wijze extra dynamiek te geven. Een mooie voorstelling, een aangename avond.

Ten slotte nog een opmerking voor potentiële geïnteresseerden die niet vertrouwd zijn met Cavalli’s muziek. Hij behoort tot de periode die wordt aangeduid met barok, maar dat betreft een periode die loopt van ongeveer 1600 tot 1750. Tussen Eliogabalo en Händels Ariodante zit een periode van zo’n zeventig jaar. In die periode was er wel degelijk sprake van de nodige ontwikkelingen. Verwacht dus geen eindeloze da capo-aria’s. Ter vergelijking: tussen Don Giovanni en de voltooiing van Tristan und Isolde zat ook ongeveer zeventig jaar en dat zijn verschillende muzikale werelden.

Eliogabalo is tot en met 26 oktober te zien in Nationale Opera & Ballet in Amsterdam. Zie voor meer informatie de website van De Nationale Opera.