(Concerto Köln and Chorus of De Nederlandse Opera, with Ivor Bolton, 2009)
We haven’t had a properly weird opera in a while, have we? We’ve had imaginative and updated concepts, but nothing sufficiently mind-boggling to take its place in the Pantheon of Odd alongside the shark and the flying skeletal fish. But fear not, my friends. I have a new addition for those hallowed halls: Francesco Cavalli’s Ercole Amante, designed for the stage by David Alden. Sit back and marvel.
Ercole Amante was commissioned by Cardinal Mazarin for the wedding of Louis XIV and Maria Theresa of Spain in 1660. It was to be a grand collaboration between Lully and Cavalli, working together to magnify the glory of France, but the preparations turned out to be so ambitious that it simply wasn’t ready in time. Thinking quickly, Cavalli tarted up his earlier opera Xerse, got Lully to write a few ballets, and used that for the marriage entertainment instead. Ercole finally got his outing in 1662, by which point Louis was already sleeping with Louise de La Vallière and one might argue that celebrations of nuptial harmony were somewhat passé. But even if it had been performed on time for the wedding celebrations, I can’t help thinking it a rather odd choice. I’ll explain why in a moment.
Alden’s production has some very clever aspects. As Cavalli’s opera is bookended by choruses in honour of France’s union with Spain, Alden chooses to make Ercole a play within a play. The opera opens on the wedding night of the King and Queen, as courtiers frolic and Cardinal Mazarin himself becomes caught up in the festivities. But all doesn’t go to plan and, having been rejected or put off by his new bride, Louis emerges from his bedroom in a sulk, railing against Cupid and his power. The scene shifts: Louis transforms into Hercules himself, and the tale-within-a-tale can start.
Here, too, we find a discontented lover. Hercules has fallen in love with the princess Iole, whose father he has slain. She has come to live at his own court and, captivated by her mournful beauty, he is determined to make her his wife, heedless of three tiny obstacles which might make this difficult. First, there’s the fact he’s her father’s murderer; second, the fact that Iole is already deeply in love with Hercules’ son Hyllus; and third, the fact that Hercules already has a wife in the form of the elegant Dejanira.
Hercules’ pursuit of Iole causes havoc not only in his own household but also among the gods, who have split into two schools of thought over this swaggering hero – one, led by Venus, which is inclined to grant his every wish; and another, headed by Juno, determined to teach this lascivious brute his lesson once and for all. As gods, men and even the spirits of the dead rise up to check Hercules’ hubris, Dejanira has one final idea to win her husband back: a robe, given to her many years before by the centaur Nessus, which he told her would act as a powerful love-charm. (Yes, we’re in Handel’s Hercules territory here.)
Do you see why I find it a slightly odd choice for a wedding? Surely there are better ways to celebrate a marriage than by watching an opera in which the would-be groom’s randy old dad roams around trying to get the bride for himself, before accidentally being slaughtered by his estranged wife? Perhaps I’m just out of touch. But I also found it odd in the sense that Louis was presumably, implicitly or explicitly, being compared to mighty Hercules – that’s the kind of thing early modern rulers liked. If so, why is Hercules so unpleasant here? Wouldn’t the King have taken offence? Or would he have understood it in a different way: that he, like Hyllus, is the son of a powerful but dead father, aided by his widowed mother, and able to make a fresh start to rule as he himself pleases? I clearly need to do more reading about the subjects chosen for wedding operas. To me, it seems like rather good luck that they ended up staging Xerse instead. At least that, with its comedy, its ironed-out confusions and its happy ending, fits the mood a little better.
Right then, I promised you weirdness. As you may have been able to deduce from the images, this Ercole features one of the most bizarre costumes I’ve ever seen on stage, and it is a huge credit to Luca Pisaroni (Hercules) that he tackles it with such flair. His Hercules is a camp, 1980s action hero, a kind of seven-foot-tall He-Man doll with bouffant blond hair and his limbs and torso encased in muscle-bound plastic. With knee-high black PVC boots, complete with ten-inch platforms, this is a costume I won’t forget in a hurry.
The characterisation is in very broad strokes: Pisaroni’s costume makes such an impact that it really renders subtle acting unnecessary, and so he stalks around the stage as if in seven-league boots, swinging his club and eyeballing his companions like a man on the very edge of sanity. He’s clearly having an enormous amount of fun. His voice, such as you notice it – which isn’t much, because Hercules is a relatively minor role in his own opera – is strong and refined. Despite the outfit, I’d been looking forward to seeing this production specifically for Pisaroni who, to date, I’ve only seen as Publio in Mozart’s Clemenza di Tito.
The oversized He-Man doll costume is only part of the weirdness, though. Towards the end of the first half, there’s a bizarre scene in which Hercules is gradually surrounded by embodiments of his great deeds: a large statue of Cerberus with glowing red eyes is joined by a man painted red and carrying a globe, to represent Atlas, and two rather terrifying oversized articulated baby puppets. One represents the young Hercules, strangling the two snakes in his cradle, but the other – winged and evil-looking, perched on top of the set – was less easy to identify. Was it a harpy? At any rate, the whole scene smacked of the director having been given more artistic licence than was good for him, especially when all the characters lined up and proceeded to do a version of the can-can. If there had been a shark in this production, that scene would have jumped it. There wasn’t a shark, but we did however have several varieties of fish in the second half, including what may have been a stickleback and a tuna, inexplicably cruising over the surface of a pond on which Tim Mead’s unfortunate Page was stranded in a boat. They were followed by a baffling ball with quivering rubber spikes, which rolled over the stage once, never to be seen again. Why?
Not all was bad. I rather liked the dead rising from their tombs and forming into an army behind the shade of Iole’s murdered father Eutiro, but that was mainly because it reminded me of the similar scenes in The Return of the King. I was impressed by the scene in which Neptune rises majestically out of the sea (i.e. through the stage) in a huge chariot drawn by rearing hippocamps. And I was very happy when, in the final scene, Pisaroni suddenly emerged stripped of his Herculean assets and dressed in shimmering cloth of gold in an approximation of Louis XIV’s sun-king costume from the Ballet de la Nuit.
But the problem was that, in such a visually busy production, it was hard to form any good opinion of the singing and music. I tried, but I kept being distracted by the fact that Hyllus was wearing trainers, or by Dejanira’s servant Licco grappling with the hapless Page on a bench. My overall impression was that it’s not one of Cavalli’s best. Unlike in Xerse there were no arias which really gripped me, and the feel was much more similar to the zany comedy of Ormindo, which feels more like a sung play than an opera. The mixture of Cavalli and Lully was interesting, but somewhat disjointed. I couldn’t detect much effort to meld their musical styles together: even to my untutored ears, it was quite obvious when Lully took over for a ballet or a fanfare.
As for the singing itself, it sounded as if there was quite a lot of vibrato across the board, more than I would expect in an opera from this early date. But the quality was high: not a weak link in the cast. The amusing thing was that, apart from Pisaroni, I didn’t recognise anyone and so had fun checking the cast list afterwards. For me, the standout voice was Giunone (Anna Bonitatibus), whose honeyed tone was matched by a magisterial command of the stage. She rather overshadowed Anna Maria Panzarella’s poignant, dignified Dejanira and Veronica Cangemi’s nervous Iole. Hyllus was sung by Jeremy Ovenden, who had a good clear tenor, but again a little too much vibrato for my taste, and Marlin Miller threw himself into the comic role of Licco with great gusto, which almost overpowered his strong and agile voice. Tim Mead was on good form, his voice a little richer and purer than it sounded in the Poppea I watched recently. And so, vocally, it was a strong production, but I just found myself baffled by what was actually going on.
This isn’t the place to start with Cavalli. If you’re a newcomer to early opera, this will leave you wide-eyed and probably somewhat alarmed by its Regie-heavy concept. It’s fun, of course, but that fun comes in a rather attention-grabbing form. A little less directorial whimsy (you can keep the He-Man costume, just trim a few non-essentials) would have made for a less bewildering and more satisfying experience.
But, as ever, that’s only my opinion. No doubt there are lots of Ercole Amante aficionados out there who are just itching to tell me how wrong I am, so come, share your thoughts, and try to convince me that the staging is a masterpiece. I’m willing to be persuaded!