The complete score of Ercole su''l Termodonte, Vivaldi''s 1723 opera, was lost, but according to Alan Curtis, who conducts Il Complesso Barocco in this performance, arias from the opera keep being discovered and scholars now have enough of the recovered music to mount a four-hour production if they choose. But, as Curtis says with a smile in the commentary feature on the DVD, some "judicious cutting" was required; musicologist Alessandro Ciccolini made a setting of enough of the recitatives for the story to make sense and for the characters to come alive dramatically, and the resulting opera is a manageable length at a little over two hours.
The 2006 production for the Spoleto Festival was billed as the modern premiere of the work. Director John Pascoe sees the opera essentially as a struggle between the sexes -- the fierce Amazons and the Greek warriors led by Hercules. Needless to say, when the men and women meet, some romantic sparks fly, complicating what both sides had expected to be a straightforward military encounter. The elephant in the living room that has to be acknowledged is the production''s sexual content and the extent of its nudity. Hercules, traditionally clothed only in a lion skin cape, is dressed according to tradition; only the front of his right shoulder obscured by a little patch of the pelt, and for one aria, he dispenses with the cape entirely. The Amazons wear sheer tops that leave nothing to the imagination, and both they and the Greek warriors sport skimpy leather skirts split up to the waistline on the sides. The virginal Martesia and the goddess Diana are the only characters with enough coverage to be able to walk down the street in Kokomo without being arrested. The issue is relevant because, this being undoubtedly the most nubile/muscular cast ever assembled for an opera production, the physical requirements must have placed some constraints on the casting. All of the leads are at least adequate vocally, but not all are consistently up to the standard one would expect for a major international festival.
There are several star turns. Most spectacular is Marina Bartoli as Ippolita, the Amazon eventually wooed back to Athens by Teseo. Her brilliant coloratura and effervescent stage presence make her a soprano to watch out for. As Martesia, Laura Cherici sings with warmth and agility, and she is charmingly funny. As Alceste, the Athenian who falls for her, tenor Luca Dordolo, may not quite be in the same league vocally, but he gives a committed and impassioned performance. Mezzo Mary-Ellen Nesi as Antiope and countertenor Randall Scotting as Teseo are technically fully equipped to manage Vivaldi''s demands, but lack the sheer vocal beauty to enthrall. The same could be said of baritone Zachary Stains, who does a completely respectable job as Ercole, but his coloratura turns sometimes seem more perfunctory than dramatically meaningful. Then again, the fault may not entirely be the singers''. Vivaldi lacked the skills as a musical dramatist of composers like Monteverdi or Handel, whose psychological insights always informed the demands they made on their singers; in this opera, one has the sense that he is sometimes spinning out vocal lines that show off the gifts of virtuosi, but which have little real relation to the drama. The fact that Bartoli and Cherici are so compelling probably has more to do with their artistry than with Vivaldi''s ability to make the characters come alive through the music.
The production can''t be called an unqualified success, but Pascoe''s direction is genuinely effective and the characters are realistically motivated. The sexual content is not shocking, but is startlingly frank for the operatic stage, and does in fact make sense as part of Pascoe''s overall conception of the piece. The production is entertaining, and while the opera may not be a masterpiece, and not all the singers will bowl you over, the DVD could be of interest to fans of Baroque opera and of innovative staging.
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