Cavalli’s Ercole amante was written for the wedding of Louis XIV to Marie-Thérèse, a Habsburg princess. The marriage itself being the seal on the French victory over Spain in the war that had lasted until 1659. It’s an odd work considering. It’s not nearly as weird as, say, Il Giasone or La Didone but it’s hardly what one would expect for the nuptials of Le Roi Soleil. It’s clear from both the Prologue and the ending that Ercole is Louis but he’s also a most unlikeable character. In this version of the Hercules story he’s in love with his son’s (Hyllo) girlfriend (Iole) and will stop at nothing to bed her including casting off his wife (Deianira), imprisoning his son and bumping off Iole’s father. In the end he’s attacked by the spirits of various people he has wronged before succumbing to the trick with the centaur’s poisoned shirt. He’s made immortal and paired off with Hebe in the heavens but it’s hardly a tale of kingly virtue or marital fidelity. For good measure, along the way a good chunk of the Graeco-Roman pantheon make an appearance.
David Alden’s production for De Nederlandse Opera, recorded in 2009, isn’t typical Alden at all. It’s spectacular and whimsical and even funny in places but there don’t seem to be any big ideas let alone perverse or perverted ones. The only really Aldenesque moment comes at the end of the prologue where France rips the dress off Spain and beds her in a manner that’s rather less than consensual. That said, there’s lots to like along the way and even Alden haters will probably enjoy this production. There are lots of spectacular effects and costumes. Neptune appears in Act 4 in a sea of radio-controlled fish for example and the “mummified” spirits of the wronged are quite spectacularly horrid. Ercole himself gets an amazing muscle suit, six inch platforms and monster wig which taken together rather evoke the Schwarzennegging Song and drinks from six packs of Heineken mini-kegs. It takes “barihunk” to a whole new level. There are also a lot of interpolated ballets to music by Llly (as originally staged). Fortunately the choreography is quite varied and they aren’t too much of a snooze though they do make the work rather long.
The singing and acting is excellent with stand out performances by Luca Pisaroni in the title role, Veronica Cangemi as Iole and the elegant Anna Bonitatibus as Giunone. Equally good are Anna Maria Panzarella as Deianira, Jeremy Ovenden as Hyllo and Wilke te Broemmelstroete as Venere. There’s also some lively comedy from Marlin Miller as Licco, Deianira’s scheming henchman, and Tim Mead as her rather hapless page. The chorus is first class and the Concerto Köln under Ivor Bolton provides idiomatic accompaniment.
The disk package is generous and very high quality. The picture and DTS-HD-MA surround sound on the Blu-ray version are first class if perhaps not the absolute best I’ve heard. Misjel Vermeiren’s video direction is unobtrusive and he’s not afraid of long shots. There’s an hour of extra material on one of the disks including rehearsal footage and some good material on building the sets and costumes. It’s all generously spread across two Blu-ray disks. The booklet is pretty standard with track listing and a short essay. Sub-title options are English, French, German, Italian, Spanish and Dutch.