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Concert reviews

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 Stubbs
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 France anymore.
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 had got.

II Synopsis

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 the music.
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)

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