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Francesco Cavalli: Ercole amante
09 Nov 2011

David Alden directs Cavalli’s Ercole Amante for Amsterdam, 2009

The operas of a composer born before the settlement of Jamestown face dim prospects of getting staged at the larger American houses.

Francesco Cavalli (with ballet music by Jean-Baptiste Lully): Ercole Amante

Ercole: Luca Pisaroni; Iole: Veronica Cangemi; Giunone: Anna Bonitatibus; Illo: Jeremy Ovenden; Deianira: Anna Maria Panzarella; Licco: Marlin Miller; Nettuno / Tevere / Spirit of Eutyro: Umberto Chiummo; Bellezza / Venere: Wilke te Brummelstroete; Cinzia / Pasitea / Spirit of Clerica: Johannette Zomer; Mercurio / Spirit of Laomedonte: Mark Tucker; A Page / Spirit of Bussiride: Tim Mead. Netherlands Opera Chorus. Concerto Köln. Conductor: Ivor Bolton. Stage Director: David Alden. Recorded live from the Het Muziektheater, 2009.

Opus Arte OABD7050D [Blu-Ray]

$48.99  Click to buy

It’s taken quite a long time, after all, for Handel to be somewhat regularly performed. So don’t be expecting any time soon for the Ercole Amante of Francesca Cavalli (born 1602) to make it to the Metropolitan at Lincoln Center, the Lyric of Chicago or the War Memorial of San Francisco.

Fortunately, those with either an interest in the beginnings of the operatic artform or simply more catholic tastes can at least avail themselves of the DVD of David Alden’s production, as recorded in January 2009 at the Het Musiektheater Amsterdam. As seen in spectacular Blu-ray, this riotous yet paradoxically respectful production of Cavalli’s opera (to a libretto by Francesco Buti) gives the viewer a sense of the entertainment value of operas that often seem, when performed dully out of a sense of historical accuracy, tediously formal in the extreme. The harmonies rarely stray from the expected, and there sometimes seem to be 10 minutes of recitative for every minute of music. Surely a composer such as Cavalli expected to have the full use of the most modern stage wizardry of his time, and Alden hasn’t denied himself the best of ours either. With the imaginative costumes of Constance Hoffman and the ingenious sets of Paul Steinberg, Alden has put together a show that respects the opera’s most sincere moments while teasing the opera’s titular hero and his less than heroic shenanigans right up to the edges of parody.

Written as part of the marriage celebrations for Louis XIV, Ercole Amante begins with a choral tribute and then effortlessly slips into the story proper. Ercole (Hercules) is a bored husband, infatuated with one Iole, who just happens to be the intended of Ercole’s own son, Hyllo. Deianira, Ercole’s wife, pleads with Gionone (Juno) for help to save her marriage, as Ercole has bargained with Venere (Venus) for assistance in his plot to seduce Iole. When frustrated, Ercole grows so furious he condemns to death his own son. Eventually Hyllo arranges for Ercole to don the infamous poisoned robe, which condemns Ercole to the Underworld — a location to which he adapts rather quickly, finding himself still abele to pursue his amorous dictates there. And so - a happy end for all!

As Alden himself ruminates in one of the bonus features, it’s not clear if composer and librettist counted on the royal party’s good humor or if they never gave a second thought to the less than favorable light the opera casts on the mythological stand-in for the King. As director, Alden plays with this dichotomy by having Luca Pisaroni in the initial scene dressed as Louis XIV, only to change into his wild Ercole persona by use of ridiculous plastic muscle molding, tall platform boots and a pro wrestler’s extravagant wig. Pisaroni is perfect for the role, being handsome enough to play the self-infatuated hero and yet with that wink of self-awareness. Camping it up even more exuberantly are Marlin Miller as the servant of Ercole’s wife and counter-tenor Tim Mead as a page.

Veronica Cangemi as Iole and Anna Maria Panzarella as Deianeira get the show’s most somber moments, and while they’re good, most viewers will be anxious for the wildness to start up again. Anna Bonitatibus’s Juno and Wilke te Brummelstroete as Venere have and are more fun.

Ivor Bolton and the expert Concerto Köln sound a bit clunky in the interposed ballet music of Lully (or is that Lully’s fault?), but the long stretches or recitative stay lively and even colorful in their expert hands.

Besides the sheer beauty of the Blu-Ray picture, Opus Arte deserves kudos for the excellent bonus features, which include a synopsis, cast gallery, filmed interviews with Pisaroni and Johanette Zomer (who takes three minor roles), and a thirty-minute “making of” featurette with fascinating glimpses into rehearsals and costume and set construction. To nitpick, that featurette needlessly repeats some clips from the interviews.

The larger American opera houses might not be ready either for Cavalli’s Monteverdian composition or David Alden’s risk-taking approach, but lovers of creative opera stagings should be thankful Amsterdam put this show on and recorded it. Snap it up.

Chris Mullins

[Editor’s Note: Ercole Amante was performed at the Boston Early Music Festival in June 1999.]

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