Cavalli’s Ercole Amante is an oddity. It was intended as a wedding present from Cardinal Mazarin to Louis XIV but got hijacked by Lully who inserted a bunch of ballets for the king to dance stretching out the piece to something like six hours. It wasn’t a great success. It’s also a very odd story for a piece intended for a royal patron as I explained in reviewing an earlier recording. It’s also in Italian which may make the only French court work to be performed in that language.
The version presented at the Opéra Comique in 2019 is very interesting (and doesn’t include Lully’s ballets!). Directors Valérie Lesort and Christian Hecq and their designers have created a very weird and rather compelling “look” for the piece. My first thought was Opera Atelier meets Monty Python but that’s not quite right. Some of the stylized acting is there and there is something both cartoonish and not quite right about the visuals but perhaps it’s more a question of recreating a 17th century spectacle in a visual language that pays homage to the spirit of that time while seeming more familiar to a 21st century audience.
There’s so much going on visually. Ercole has a pet that looks like it escaped from the Where the Wild Things Are. Giunone flies about the stage in various aerial contraptions. Characters come and go via traps in the stage. There’s a sort of gropey sofa that assaults Iole while Ercole is trying to seduce her. Nettune has a steampunk submarine. And much more. Hopefully the stills will give some sort of decent idea. It’s certainly a spectacular feast for the eyes and on the Blu-ray release gets an exceptionally good picture.
Musically it’s really high class. The band and chorus is Pygmalion conducted by Raphaël Pichon. They produce a distinctively 17th century sound. They can play in the grand formal manner when required but they can also produce a rather folky sound when that’s needed. I think too often people think “baroque” and the 18th century switch gets thrown. Not here.
The singing and acting is top notch. Nahuel di Pierro swaggers around as Ercole while Anna Bonitatibus is exceptionally stylish as Giunone. Giuseppina Bridelli is a very touching and smoky sounding Dejanira. The young lovers; Iole and Hyllo are sweetly sung and nicely acted by Francesca Aspromonte and Krystian Adam who has a really appealing tenor voice. The two countertenors; Dominique Visse as Licco and Ray Chenez as the page are splendidly campy. Is there a camper opera singer than Visse? I also really liked the booming bass of Luca Tittoto doubling up as Nettuno and a very dead looking Eutryo. The minor roles are mostly well sung by members of Pygmalion.
It’s beautifully filmed by François Roussillon and has really good sound on both stereo and surround tracks. The documentation includes a very necessary synopsis and a track listing as well as a very informative contextual essay. Subtitle options are Italian, English, French, German, Japanese and Korean.
I’ll confess to having a soft spot for Cavalli and I’m puzzled that his works aren’t performed more often. I’m not sure Ercole Amante is his best work but it’s pretty decent and, in a performance and recording as good as this one, well worth seeing.