The 340-year-old premier
Back in ’67, a most prominent musician, a veritable rock star of the era, had a major piece of work rejected by the powers that be. The creation was judged too politically daring, and the artistic style out of touch with those conservative times. The work was never performed in its time, and sat on a shelf for years.No, this was not the ’67 of 40 years ago, the ’67 of the Summer of Love and “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” but 1667. The music-maker in question, Francesco Cavalli, was not exactly a rock star. But he was one of the most successful and influential composers, helping to establish opera as the leading performance art medium of its time. Still, for all his notoriety and popular success, “Eliogabalo,” Cavalli’s 1667 opera about the flawed, decadent teen emperor of third-century Rome, was never presented in the 17th century. Nor the 18th, or the 19th. “Eliogabalo” finally saw the light of the stage as the 21st century approached, in a little-publicized 1998 production in Cremona, Italy, the composer’s birthplace. It had its popular unveiling in 2004, at Theatre La Monnaie in Brussels, with Belgian René Jacobs conducting. The opera sees its North American premiere this week – 340 years after being written – when the Aspen Opera Theater Center stages its version. Conducted by Jane Glover, a London-based specialist in Baroque music, and directed by Edward Berkeley, head of the Aspen Opera Theater Center, “Eliogabalo” will be presented at the Wheeler Opera House Tuesday, Aug. 14, Thursday, Aug. 16, and Saturday, Aug. 18.Cavalli came to prominence in the 1640s. His 1649 opera “Il Giasone,” loosely based on the Greek myth of Jason and the Golden Fleece, cemented his reputation; considered possibly the most popular opera of the 17th century, it was performed in Aspen two summers ago. Thanks to Cavalli – and even more to his better-known predecessor Monteverdi – opera became the dominant form of mass entertainment in 17th-century Venice, a crossroads of the cultural world.”Opera was like the movies today,” said Mauro Calcagno, an Italian-born associate professor at Harvard who has been instrumental in resurrecting and transcribing Cavalli’s original score. “Four theaters going on at the same time, with seven or eight new operas each year. Venice was the center of opera, and attracted lots of tourists.”That popularity was overwhelmed by even bigger forces. The 1640s and 1650s – when opera began its rise – were decades of relative liberalism. “By the 1660s, it was more conservative. More closed,” said Calcagno. Calcagno explained that the Jesuits had returned to Venice, and were asserting their moral influence. Compounding the problem for “Eliogabalo,” the owners of the theater where the opera was to be staged – a family of noblemen with ties to the church-government alliance – had taken over operations of the theater. “Eliogabalo,” which ends with the killing of the morally corrupt emperor, “would not have fit their political image,” continued Calcagno. “Having an emperor who dies at the end of the opera – that was not acceptable.”
In fact, “Eliogabalo” did open at the theater. Only it was not Cavalli’s “Eliogabalo.” Another composer, G.A. Boretti, was brought in to stage his own take on the story. In this more palatable version, “he repents,” said Calcagno. “That’s a good teaching, a good example of Jesuit doctrine. It exemplified morality.”Old school, new schoolJane Glover has long had a deep interest in Cavalli’s work. While working on her doctorate, spending her time between London and Venice, she took every Cavalli opera off the shelves of Venice’s Marciana Library and read each one. Her thesis became the groundwork for the 1978 book, “Cavalli.” As part of her doctorate work, she conducted one of those, “Rosinda,” at Oxford, using period instruments. That opening night, more than three decades ago, remains a highlight of her 58 years.”This piece, that had lain on a shelf for over 300 years – to hear this audience behind me, laughing and enjoying and cheering it. That was amazing,” she said.Still, “Eliogabalo” made her worrisome. “It having been written and rejected – one wonders why it was rejected. Especially with someone who was as distinguished as Cavalli was in the 1600s,” said Glover, who is the music director of Chicago’s Music of the Baroque, and the author of last year’s “Mozart’s Women: His Family, His Friends, His Music.” “He was one of the greatest opera composers. It’s a bit like someone like Stravinsky being commissioned to write something for Tanglewood, in his 70s, and then being told he was being replaced.”Besides the politics of the story, there was another reason that “Eliogabalo” was shelved in its own time. Cavalli was in his 60s when he composed the opera, and was tied to a style of opera that was going out of style. In his youth – which coincided with the youth of the form – opera was closer to musical theater than the Mozart and Wagner classics that come most readily to mind today.”It’s almost like spoken-word theater with music – more musical theater than Puccini,” said Calcagno. “It’s closer to speech than arias. There is a lot of recitative. Other composers were going more toward arias, Cavalli more toward theater.”
“Opera itself, as a product, had already grown away from what Cavalli cared deeply about and was so good at – telling a story with music,” said Glover. “Everything was so knit together, with no spare parts, no spare verbiage.” The current production is so stripped down, by the standards of grander opera, that Glover did a double-take when I referred to the “orchestra” she would be conducting. The ensemble is mainly a few period instruments – two harpsichords, two Baroque cellos, and two theorboes (large lute instruments) – plus several more standard string instruments.The shift in opera form had to do with a different sort of politics. In the 1660s, as Glover put it, “the era of the singer arrived.” Venetian singers had become the forerunners of the demanding, modern-day divas. Among their most strident demands was the insistence on arias – flashy, lots of them, well-timed for maximum applause. With opera doing such good business, the singers of the time pulled a lot of weight. Boretti was happy to accommodate their wishes; Cavalli was not. “Eliogabalo,” said Glover, “was full of great music. But not enough.”It would be the last of Cavalli’s opera scores to survive; two subsequent works were lost.Baroque renaissanceThe attention denied to Cavalli for his final work is being repaid, a few centuries on. Music of the Baroque period has been in increasing demand over the last 30 years. Glover mentions two reasons for the resurgence. One has been the use of the actual instruments that composers like Cavalli and Monteverdi – and their German-born contemporaries Bach, Handel and Telemann – wrote for. “Playing on period instruments is like having a painting cleaned – you see real colors and texture,” said Glover. The other factor behind the rising interest has been the return of the high-pitched countertenor. When Glover first got involved in early music, the only countertenor of note, she says, was the Englishman James Bowman, who made his name in Britten’s opera of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” “And now they grow on trees,” she said.Cavalli has been near the center of this renaissance. Calcagno likens his latter-day popularity to that of Vivaldi – “a composer rediscovered in the 20th century. Cavalli’s one of the last of those,” he said. Calcagno noted that “Il Giasone” has received numerous performances, and that the Glimmerglass Opera, a noted company in upstate New York, did “La Calisto” a few years ago. There is a DVD release of La Mannaie’s version of “La Calisto.” Calcagno is part of the Cavalli Project, which aims to publish modern editions of the composer’s operas. Glover, over the past few decades, has turned her attention mostly to 18th-century opera, but is finding it “wonderful” to return to Cavalli.
The work itself, said Calcagno, translates remarkably well to modern times. “Eliogabalo” mixes tragic elements – rape, murder – with comedic aspects. “I think it will be very appealing to contemporary audiences,” he said. “It’s very entertaining, a well-constructed plot.”The composer may not have made it easy for his contemporaries to see “Eliogabalo.” But he seemed to have taken pains to made sure that future generations would know his work. Most opera scores of the time were trashed as soon as the production was over. Calcagno again likens it to the movies: “Once it ran, nobody cared anymore. There was no canon, like nowadays,” he said.The exception was Cavalli. “He had his wife copy his scores,” said Calcagno. “He wanted his scores retained for posterity. He’s getting the attention he deserves.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is email@example.com.
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