Unlike City Opera, Gotham Chamber Opera is utterly at home being homeless, and hopping from one idiosyncratic space to another. (Its next outing is Daniel Catán’s Rappaccini’s Daughter, to be performed in June, at a still undisclosed outdoor location.) It’s a company that regularly manages to get everything right; this time, though, it turned a Baroque rarity into The Rocky Horror Show: The Opera. The costumes seemed foraged from a glam-rock thrift store: spiked codpieces, lamé tails, platinum-bob wigs, leather harnesses, and, oddly, football pads for the centurions. Rather than clinch the opera’s modern reputation with excellent music-making, Gotham and director James Marvel offered a workaday performance by an ensemble that must have had a rough time hearing itself in its spread-out formation. Emily Righter and Micaëla Oeste brought emotional intensity to the roles of a couple that is genuinely in love, but they couldn’t compensate for the all the yuckety-yuck stage business: One gag involved wiping down a wall after an especially explosive encounter. How are you going to sound exquisite over that?
The real emperor Elagabalus was a raunchy teenager, but Cavalli made something refined out of a vulgar life. This production reversed the process. Maybe it’s just me, but I found the leering and gyrating profoundly unsexy. I sat at a table that doubled as a catwalk for singers who stomped by in boots and Lucite heels or writhed so close to my wineglass that I could see the goose bumps and smell the latex. One topless dancer had a German invocation tattooed on her belly: gib mir stärke, “give me strength.” There were times during the show that I found myself muttering the same thing. Then, after intermission, something remarkable happened: The show turned around. With the sex gags played out, the love story emerged, set to a score affecting enough that the company might consider a toned-down revival: Cavalli sans codpiece.