musica Dei donum
Cavalli: Ercole amante, opera in a prologue and 5 acts
Meredith Hall (Giunone), Ellen Hargis (Iole), Laurie Reviol (Cinthia,
Ombra di Clerica Regina), Elizabeth Ronan (Bellezza, Venere), soprano;
Ann Hallenberg (Deianira), Deborah Leath Rentz (Pasithea), mezzosoprano;
Steve Dugardin (Ombra di Bussiride, Paggio), alto; William Hite (Hyllo),
Olof Lilja (Licco), Ryan Turner (Mercurio, Ombra di Laomedonte), tenor;
Nathaniel Watson (Ercole), Donald Wilkinson (Nettuno), bariton; Paul
Guttry (Il Tevere), Harry van der Kamp (Ombra d'Eutiro), bass; The
King's Noyse & Boston Early Music Festival Violin Band/Paul O'Dette & Stephen
concert: Utrecht, Aug, 1999; (Holland Festival Early Music Utrecht 1999)
The Holland Festival Early Music Utrecht presented, in cooperation
with the Boston Early Music Festival a staged production of the opera
Ercole amante by Francesco Cavalli (1602-1676). Although in Italian,
the opera was composed for a performance at the French court in 1662.
I Cavalli in France
The initiative was taken by Mazarin, who was France's first minister
from the death of Louis XIII until his own death in 1661. He was
Italian and a great lover of the arts. He undertook many attempts to
introduce Italian art to France. As a young man he participated in the
oratorio performances in Rome, organised by the Jesuits. Later he
contributed to the rise of the Roman opera. When in France, he wanted
the French to get knowledge of the developments in Italian opera. One
of the most famous Italian opera composers of the 17th century, Luigi
Rossi, came to Paris and performed his Orfeo. The reception was mixed.
Some loved the music, others hated everything that wasn't French. The
whole production costed Mazarin a fortune, which undermined his power.
For some time Mazarin didn't attempt to bring Italian opera's to
The wedding of Louis XIV should change everything. It had to be
magnificent, and Mazarin didn't bother to spend enormous amounts of
money. After all, there was no separation between politics and art. It
was the reason to have a new theatre built by the most famous Italian
architect of that time, Gasparo Vigarani. It took three years to build
it and when it was finished, Mazarin had already died. The size of the
stage was enormous, so all kinds of machinery could be used and a
large perspective scenery as well. Mazarin invited Francesco Cavalli,
the leading opera composer of Italy, to compose the music on a
libretto of Abbé Buti.
The performance of Ercole amante wasn't succesful. The audience didn't
understand the Italian libretto and was more interested in Lully's
ballets, which were inserted and in which the king and queen were
dancing. The whole performance lasted for 12 hours, and the
machineries drowned out the music. After the last performance Cavalli
went back to Italy, deeply hurt by the negative reception his opera
The opera has a prologue and five acts.
In the prologue the glory of France and the royal wedding are
celebrated; the king and his bride dance.
Act I: Ercole (Hercules) is in love with Iole, but she hates him,
because he has killed her father. She is in love with Ercole's son
Hyllo. Ercole is angry that he can't win Iole over; Venere (Venus)
promises him to make Iole love him. Giunone (Juno), goddess of
matrimony, vows to protect the love of Iole and Hyllo.
Act II: Hyllo and Iole sing about their love. Iole is asked to meet
Ercole. Deianira, the repudiated wife of Ercole, has heard about his
unfaithfulness and sings a lamento. A choir of Zephyrs and brooks sing
Sonno (Sleep) asleep. Giunone uses Sonno to fight the plans of Venere.
Act III: Venere assures Ercole that her plan will win Iole over.
Ercole learns that his rival is his own son, Hyllo. Ercole tells Iole
that he has killed her father, because he didn't want him (Ercole) to
marry her. Iole tells Ercole that is was she who didn't want to marry
him. Ercole then accuses her of being the cause of her father's death.
When Iole sits down on a couch which has been bewitched by Venere, she
falls in love with Ercole. Hyllo has heard everything and wants to
kill himself. Guinone and Sonno bring Ercole asleep and Giunone gives
Iole a sword to kill him. Hyllo intervenes. Ercole awakes, sees the
sword and thinks his son wants to kill him. Iole confesses and says
that she will commit suicide, if Ercole kills Hyllo.Deianira then begs
for her son's life. Ercole expels Deianira and imprisons his son.
Act IV: Hyllo is on a deserted island. The page comes to the island in
a little boat and tells him Iole wants to marry Ercole to save Hyllo's
life. Hyllo sends him back to tell her that he is going to kill
himself, if she does so. A storm is getting up and the page drowns.
Hyllo plunges into the sea, but is saved by Nettune (Neptune) at the
request of Giunone who then sings about her victory over Venere. Then
Iole goes to the cemetary to ask her father to help her. His spirit
appears, and he vows to beat Ercole.
Act V: The spirit of Iole's father and spirits of other victims of
Ercole appear and vow revenge. In the palace Ercole is set to marry
Iole. He asks her to hug him. While she does so, she puts a bewitched
robe around him, which Deianira has given her to get control over him.
The effect however is fatal: he dies. Deianira is scared stiff and
wants to kill herself. Then Hyllo appears. His joy at seeing Iole is
tempered because of his father's death. But in triumph over Ercole's
death Giunone descends from the clouds and says that Ercole is living
in heaven and has married Bellezza (Beauty). Ercole and Bellezza
appear. A choir of planets wishes the French Ercole (Louis XIV) and
his Beauty - queen Marie-Thérèse - a long and happy life.
III Production and performance
The production is rather sober, not as extravagant as in 1662. In that
respect it wasn't 'historically justifiable'. Otherwise, though, it
was: no attempts were made to 'modernize' it, and - although I
wouldn't dare to say that every element was 'historically informed',
as far as I could see there were very few elements that definitely
were not. For me - and I believe for most people in the audience - it
worked. And - very important - it didn't take the attention away from
Cavalli's music is great, and the overall level of playing
and singing was at least satisfying. The instrumentalists of The
King's Noyse and the Boston Early Music Festival Violin Band, directed
by Paul O'Dette and Stephen Stubbs, did a great job. The cast was
somewhat unbalanced. I had to get used to some of them, although I
believe that there is still a long way to go to a really 'historically
justifiable' way of singing baroque opera. Some voices were just not
quite suitable for this kind of music, some were not able to project
the text, others used too much vibrato. Most singers were too
reluctant to add ornaments and didn't feel free enough to do something
imaginative with their parts. The role of Ercole (Nathaniel Watson)
was disappointing, not radiating enough authority. (In the only
recording of this work, directed by Michel Corboz, this role is sung
by the Danish bass Ulrik Cold, who is very convincing.) The
mezzosoprano Ann Hallenberg (Deianira) was another disappointment,
being stylistically out of touch with most of the other singers. The
tenor William Hyte (Hyllo) and the soprano Ellen Hargis (Iole) were
among the best in the cast. Others worth mentioning are the bass Harry
van der Kamp as the spirit of Iole's father, the alto Steve Dugardin
as the page and the tenor Olof Lilja as Licco, the servant of
Deianira. The page and Licco in many ways play the court jesters,
giving sarcastic comments on all the love intrigues at the court. The
performances by Dugardin and Lilja were spot on.
Another thing I liked was the attempt to recreate the baroque way of
acting. To our taste it may be very static and unspectacular, but it
certainly contributed to communicating the idea what opera was like in
the baroque era.
There was definitely a lot to enjoy. It was a good and in many ways
convincing attempt to recreate one of the greatest operas of the 17th
century. I wonder whether a CD recording will be convincing. Then you
don't see anything, and there is not the atmosphere of the theatre. I
believe that in case of a recording, there is some need for
improvement in the vocal department of this production.
Johan van Veen (© 1999)