(Spoleto Festival, 2006, Il Complesso Barocco with Alan Curtis)
We’ve discussed, on a previous occasion, the indignities inflicted on opera singers, but the sadomasochism of Alcina has just been comprehensively trumped. I’d like to say that one remembers this production of Ercole sul Termodonte for its wonderful music, or for the simple and effective set designs, or for the generally admirable cast. But this would be disingenuous. Cast, crew and orchestra must have known, from the moment they began rehearsals, that this opera would be remembered forever for Zachary Stains performing the title role of Ercole stark naked, with nothing to preserve his modesty except the occasional fortuitous shadow cast by the paws of his lion-skin cloak.
When one thinks of Vivaldi, one thinks of him as the music master of the Pietà, writing music for the talented schoolgirls who were his pupils. As such, an opera about powerful women – the Amazon queen Antiope, her sister Ippolita and her courageous followers – would seem to be the perfect match. But Ercole was actually performed for the first time in Rome, at a time when women were forbidden to appear on stage and, despite the opera’s strong female roles, all the parts were taken by men in the first performance. We’ve come across two of the singers before. Carestini, who would be Vinci’s first Arbace and his first Cesare, and Handel’s first Ariodante, sang Alceste. Oddly enough that isn’t the primo uomo role, if one considers that Teseo (sung originally by Giovanni Battista Minelli) has more stage-time and better fits the criteria for the Baroque Noble Hero™. Ippolita was sung by Giacinto Fontana, il Farfallino, who made something of a speciality of playing stroppy noblewomen and had sung opposite Carestini as Mandane and Marzia. By his standards, Ippolita is practically a shrinking violet.
Before getting into details, I should point out that there are two versions of Vivaldi’s Ercole floating round. The filmed production was staged at Spoleto in 2006 and features a cast of young singers, with Alceste sung as a tenor and Telamone as a countertenor. The version that’s available on CD was recorded in 2010 and has an altogether starrier and stronger cast, with Alceste as a countertenor, Telamone as a tenor and an extra character, Orizia, who’s been cut from the filmed production. I’ll go into further detail about the respective casts at the end.
So, with Ercole Amante fresh in our minds, what should we expect from Ercole sul Termodonte? Well, the key thing is that here we see Ercole as warrior, not as lover. Indeed, he has come to the land of the Amazons in order to undertake one of his Twelve Labours, given to him as penance for having slain his own wife and children in a fit of madness. He must bring back the sword of the fearsome Amazon queen Antiope. And so Ercole comes north with a crack company of Greek heroes, determined to teach these unnatural women a lesson and wipe them all out before returning to Greece in triumph with Antiope’s weapons. However, this is a Baroque opera and that means two things. First, the title character isn’t the main character, and secondly, love will always triumph over violence.
When Antiope’s young daughter Martesia is captured in a skirmish by the Greeks, she promptly sets aflame the hearts of two of Ercole’s best men, Alceste (king of Sparta) and Telamone (king of Ithaca). These two heroes vie for the young woman’s favour, each hoping to carry her home with him as his queen. Ercole’s right-hand man Teseo finds his heart similarly captivated by a mysterious beauty whom he saves from a bear, and who turns out to be Antiope’s sister Ippolita. Ippolita herself is charmed by her rescuer’s courtesy and nobility – but this is surely no time for love? When Teseo himself is taken captive by the Amazons in a second fight, it looks as if all the lovers’ hopes will be in vain. The vengeful Antiope swears to sacrifice him in order to avenge her daughter. Will Ippolita be able to rescue her beloved? Will Martesia make up her mind which of her two suitors pleases her most? And will anybody ever give Ercole any clothes?
On that note, it’s time to deal with the elephant in the corner. There is widespread nudity in this production and, for once, it’s not just the girls: there are lengthy shots of full-frontal male nudity, so be warned if you’re of an excitable disposition. One notices this tendency right from the beginning, as Antiope’s Amazons drill for battle during the opening sinfonia with their right breasts exposed. Antiope and Ippolita are granted a thin veil of material, but their cut-out bodices leave little to the imagination. The Greek soldiers all have extremely short tunics, which show off their fine musculature to perfection and which would usually lead to speculation about exactly what Ancient Greeks wore under their kilts. But that’s not necessary here. From the minute Zachary Stains enters to the sound of trumpets, head thrown back, proud and arrogant, everyone else looks overdressed.
And yet, you know what? The nudity really didn’t bother me as I thought it would. In fact, I really liked John Pascoe’s design and the reasons behind it, which you can hear him talk about in a short interview at the start of the DVD. He has the rather wonderful idea that the opera is about love taming wrath. Ercole begins as a savage figure of bloodlust, which is when he comes on dressed only in a lionskin – just as he’s depicted in hundreds of Old Master paintings, which may well be another reason why it seemed perfectly logical to me. For Pascoe, Ercole’s outfit reflects his changing attitude as ruler. He’s wild and untamed as an animal at the start but, when his heart is touched with mercy at the end, he changes into the sober dark uniform of the Greeks, signalling that he is coming back into the fold where men are ruled by law and justice. I liked this idea. And, unlike many people (according to Amazon), I thought the costumes or lack thereof were very clever – similarly the set designs, where the Amazons hold court beneath a great head of their goddess Diana, and the Greeks make camp within a circle of mutilated phalli. For heaven’s sake, these costumes are probably a darn sight more historically accurate than those in most operas I’ve seen (except, perhaps, for Antiope and Hippolyta’s thigh-high gold and silver stiletto boots, but we’ll just overlook those).
The singing is generally good and full of expressiveness, but not of the very highest standard. Perhaps it’s a shame that I had listened to some of the CD before watching the DVD, as it meant that I drew unhelpful comparisons. Mary-Ellen Nesi’s Antiope is powerful and commanding: she is wonderful to watch in her angrier arias, such as Con aspetto lusinghiero or the splendidly furious Scenderò, volerò, griderò. Coming on in her red dress, full of vengeance, she’s a sight to behold. But her voice doesn’t always sound fully warmed up and some of her lower notes are a little unstable. One has to bear in mind that Ercole was filmed ten years ago now and many of these singers have grown and developed since. I had the chance to hear Nesi sing at the Proms last year, and now her voice is certainly a lot more refined. But despite any qualms I may have, her performance in the film is most impressive.
As her daughter Martesia, Laura Cherici has a warm, shimmering soprano which perfectly suits her character’s soubrette-like mischief. She has a charmingly jaunty opening duet with Antiope as the Amazons head off to hunt, and I thoroughly enjoyed her first aria Certo pensier ch’ho in petto, where she added some lovely trills in the da capo. I thought she was one of the most polished singers in the cast, but I have to confess that the reason I always smiled when she came on was because of her acting. Her Martesia plays the innocent, reacting with wide-eyed surprise when the besotted Greeks fall for her buxom charms. As the third member of this royal sisterhood, Marina Bartoli’s Ippolita was my other favourite singer. Like Cherici, she is a soprano with gorgeous honeyed tones and she perfectly conveyed this warrior princess’s infatuation with Teseo without ever slipping into insipidity. She benefitted from the two loveliest arias in the opera: Onde chiare che sussurrate, a gorgeous pastoral love-song with nightingale flutters to the voice, and the equally divine Amato ben, with its haunting solo violin.
The men were a little more mixed. Stains has a supple, clear and strong tenor and tackled his arias with aplomb, all the more impressive for his immense sangfroid. Sometimes he had a bit of trouble with the faster coloratura, which came off sounding a bit like gargling, but that’s a minor criticism. I can give him nothing but praise, for managing to make Ercole come across as an arrogant swine, and a plausibly dangerous opponent, while standing naked in front of thousands of people, and knowing that thousands more would watch him on DVD. As his lesser sidekicks, Luca Dordolo made a cheerful and appealing tenor Alceste. His interactions with Cherici’s Martesia were wonderfully fun, despite the odd wavering in his coloratura. I felt a little more critical of Filippo Mineccia’s Telamone but, to put this in context, I saw him in very good voice last year in Halle, and this was ten years ago; understandably, he sounds very young and untried here. His voice is fluting and a bit quavery, and nowadays he sounds much stronger and more confident. But he didn’t have the best part: Telamone doesn’t get to do much except lust after Martesia and occasionally hang around in a threatening or thuggish manner.
The main appeal of the production (quite apart from Stains’s costume) was to see Randall Scotting’s Teseo. Some of you may remember that I saw Scotting in concert at Handel House last year and was captivated by his gentler arias and by his powerful lower notes. As with Mineccia, he’s got a lot better in the last ten years, but his performance here in Ercole is already very commendable. His voice is rich and dusky, and there are some of those characteristic velvety low notes already, but there’s the odd wobble here and there. To do justice to Scotting, though, he’s been saddled with one of the wettest characters I’ve come across so far. Teseo takes being a Baroque hero to extremes. He’s clearly a lover not a fighter, a knight errant misplaced in time. He’s terribly sweet and respectful, but there are times when I did find myself snapping at him to get a grip. When not rescuing ‘noble ladies’ from bears, he’s wooing Ippolita with bad chat-up lines (when she threatens him with violence, he tells her she has already mortally wounded him), lounging around with a ‘hello ladies’ expression on his face, or bemoaning the fact that he’s just been rescued from certain death, because it means he won’t be able to see his beloved any more. These Baroque primo uomini! And the libretto isn’t even by Metastasio, so I can’t blame him.
Despite my jibing, I did think this was enormous fun and, if you’re tempted, go on and give it a go. The singing may not be the very best, but it includes some beautiful Vivaldi arias and some splendidly martial fanfares with trumpets. I’m surprised to see that so many people on Amazon don’t like it. I wouldn’t say it’s going to be an enduring favourite, but I think the design is brave and clever, and it isn’t anywhere near as salacious as it could have been. Stains’s nudity is just that: nudity, not nakedness. It’s no more shocking than looking at an ancient statue, most of the time. However, if you’re planning on getting this, I would recommend buying the CD as well in order to compare the singing afterwards. As I said earlier, the CD’s cast includes some of the biggest names in opera. There, Ercole is played by Rolando Villazón (sounding much more impressive than when I saw him in Don Giovanni); Teseo by Romina Basso; Ippolita by Joyce DiDonato; Antiope by Vivica Genaux; and the countertenor Alceste by Philippe Jaroussky.
This is a production full of enjoyable acting and, despite its daring nudity, it’s actually quite old-fashioned in spirit. It creates a vaguely period aesthetic, it’s aesthetically beautiful, and it sticks to the heart of the narrative. There are no bizarre props to show off how clever the director is: it’s very simple and all the more effective for that. And trust me, even if the prospect of nudity is troubling you, you really do begin to forget about it after a while.