NEW YORK — Of all the unlikely venues for an opera, you’d have to go some to top The Box, a nightclub in a seedy Lower East Side neighborhood where black tie is optional, cameras are prohibited, and dancers perform seminude every night at 1 a.m.
But it struck Neal Goren, artistic director of the Gotham Chamber Opera, as the perfect location for the US premiere of Francesco Cavalli’s ‘‘Eliogabalo,’’ a Baroque opera about a third-century teenage Roman emperor whose sexual depravity was shocking even by the standards of that corrupt era.
After all, this is the same company that enjoyed a triumph three years ago with another ‘‘site-specific’’ staging, performing Haydn’s comic opera ‘‘Il mondo della luna (The World on the Moon)’’ at the Hayden Planetarium.
Alas, the latest effort, seen at its second performance Tuesday night (it runs through March 29), is only a partial success. Perhaps seduced by his environment, director James Marvel chose to pile on the camp so thickly that it frequently overwhelms the musical and dramatic charms of this salacious yet elegant work. While the singers perform ably, they are often sabotaged by the cheap and obvious stage business required of them, especially in the evening’s first half.
This was especially true of Eliogabalo himself, portrayed by the hardworking countertenor Christopher Ainslie and his two cross-dressing sidekicks, Zotico (mezzo-soprano Daryl Freedman) and Lenia (tenor John Easterlin). Ainslie, while singing an extremely demanding role, was forced to preen and prance while wearing a variety of garish outfits that included fishnet stockings and a glittering codpiece draped in fringe. Such was the level of humor that when he sang of his love’s beauteous cheeks, you could be sure it wasn’t her face he was fondling. Easterlin, carrying a large black purse, and Freedman, whip in hand like a refugee from the Kit Kat Klub in ‘‘Cabaret,’’ indulged in similar nonstop sexual innuendo.
The standout performers were mezzo Emily Grace Righter and baritone Brandon Cedel. Righter brought a noble voice and bearing to the role of Alessandro, the cousin who at first defends the emperor but eventually joins the plot to assassinate him. (In real life, Severus Alexander succeeded Heliogabalus and reigned for a dozen or so years until he, too, was assassinated.) Cedel, fresh from being named one of six winners in the Metropolitan Opera’s 60th annual National Council Auditions this month, played the comical servant Nerbulone with a lustrous, voice and charismatic appeal.
Marvel did a creditable job of adapting the work to the limitations of The Box’s tiny stage. A long table, with audience members seated along the sides, served as a catwalk for characters to make their entrances and exits.
The singers were ably accompanied by a string ensemble that included the theorbo, a long-necked plucked string instrument. Goren himself played the harpsichord. The opera, composed in 1667 but apparently never performed until 1999, was subjected to extensive cuts. That kept the running time of the production to about 2½ hours.