Wednesday, January 11, 2023

POP’s Labors for Vivaldi’s Hercules Pay Off

The Amazon princess Ippolita (Janet Todd) sings of her new beloved, the Greek hero Teseo,
in Pacific Opera Project's US premiere of Vivaldi's opera Ercole su’l Termodonte (1723).


Vivaldi’s “Ercole su’l Termodonte,” Pacific Opera Project, Highland Park Ebell Club, Los Angeles

Caricature of Vivaldi
(1678-1741) from 1723.
Considering the jaw-dropping list of exploits and adventures listed on the Wikipedia page devoted to Heracles, operas involving this greatest of ancient Greek heroes are remarkably few in number, the major exception in the Baroque era being Handel’s Hercules, composed in 1744.

This has a quite different plot from Antonio Vivaldi's somewhat earlier Ercole su'l Termodonte RV 710 (Hercules on the Thermodon, or more loosely but relevantly, Hercules and the Amazons), of which the ever-enterprising Pacific Opera Project gave the US premiere exactly 300 years to the month after Vivaldi first presented his 16th opera (or his 21st, or 8th—your pick, depending on source) in Rome’s Teatro Capranica.

Title-page of the
published libretto.
As with many others of his operas (Vivaldi claimed to have written 94 but around 50 have been identified by title), the original score of Ercole was lost, but 30 of its arias survived in copies at various European archives. In the 2000s the musicologist and conductor Fabio Biondi assembled, with guidance from the original published libretto by Antonio Salvi, a performable score from the surviving material plus newly-composed recitatives, none of Vivaldi’s own having survived (Biondi’s quest is entertainingly described in Opera Today). His reconstruction was then staged and commercially recorded.

Enter POP’s enterprising Artistic Director Josh Shaw, who learned about Ercole before the pandemic and originally intended to mount a production of it in the company’s 2020 season. This was to be POP’s first venture into historically-informed Baroque opera performance, with staging, orchestral playing, and costuming as “authentic” as possible, but the ambition was only to be finally achieved three years later than planned.

The Greek heroes: l-r, Teseo (Kyle Tingzon), Alceste (Michael Skarke), Hercules
(Logan Webber), Telemone (Manfred Ayana).

Shaw’s practical approach (outlined in published and online interviews) was to pare down the work to around two hours’ running time, tailoring it to fit the Highland Park Ebell Club’s intimate space, made yet more so by its transformation into a 188-seat replica (left) of a typically horseshoe-shaped Baroque theater, with temporary scaffolding supporting three tiers of box seating on three sides, plus a line of balcony seats at the rear and four rows of stalls facing the small orchestra pit.

All-in-all, the arrangement achieved the desired immediacy, though patrons clambering and peering to find their designated seating pushed Saturday night's start time back by a quarter-hour or so and, seating once located, the temporary structure amplified chair-clomping as audience members shunted back and forth to get better sightlines for the action.

The only known portrait of
Vivaldi, also dating from 1723.
The three-part introductory sinfonia, self-borrowed by Vivaldi from his earlier opera Armida, at once showed the skill of POP’s small band of 18th century-clad and bewigged players, with clean, virtually vibrato-free articulation from the string quintet (two cellos), led by concertmistress Boryana Popova and underpinned by Jason Yoshida on the long-necked theorbo, and all propulsively directed by Kyle Naig at the keyboard. The numerous brief instrumental coverings of scene changes, presumably added by Biondi, featured some exquisite oboe and flute solos, with a stentorian trumpet occasionally added to the mix.

Ercole takes its plot from the Labors of Hercules, imposed as a penance on the hero for having killed his own family in a fit of madness. The ninth Labor was to acquire the queen of the Amazons’ girdle (which in Vivaldi’s and Salvi’s scenario becomes her sword) and in true Amazonian fashion the opening scene finds Queen Antiope, sonorously and indeed ferociously portrayed by mezzo-soprano and POP regular Meagan Martin, railing against the iniquities of men and vowing to protect her daughter Martesia (Véronique Filloux, soprano) from them.

l-r: Ippolita (Janet Todd), Antiope (Meagan Martin), Martesia (Véronique Filloux).

Scene change to the heroes—Hercules (Logan Webber, tenor), Teseo (Kyle Tingzon, countertenor), Alceste (Michael Skarke, countertenor), and Telemone (Manfred Anaya, tenor)—vowing to achieve the quest, but martial valore rapidly succumbs to l’amore when Teseo rescues Antiope’s sister Ippolita (soprano Janet Todd, another POP stalwart) from a bear and the couple immediately fall in love.

Alceste (Michael Skarke) and
Martesia (Véronique Filloux).
In short order Alceste and Telemone capture Martesia and immediately start facing off and chest-bumping for her favors. A brief but effective slo-mo battle scene takes place under blood-red lighting, but the worst that happens is some prisoner-taking by both sides. This sets up the opera’s second half, in which prisoner-exchange negotiations and one just-in-time rescue from execution lead to a final scene of reconciliation. Peace is declared between the two sides, Antiope acknowledges her sister’s and daughter’s marriages with Teseo and Alceste, and relinquishes her sword to Hercules.

Not for a moment is any of this meant to be taken seriously, at least in this production. The focus is firmly, and effectively, on the vocal prowess of the cast, who without exception navigated skillfully Vivaldi’s melismatic assault-course of a score, the many ABA-form arias being brief, tuneful, and varied enough to avoid any longueurs. If you like Vivaldi, you will love Ercole su'l Termodonte. If you find his chugging rhythms get a little relentless after a while, well...

The part of Hercules himself, despite being the titular hero of heroes, is not particularly large and mostly consists of him acting as enabler to the amorous entanglements, though he does rise to the role of reconciler-in-chief at the conclusion. On this night at least Mr. Webber’s singing, while agile, seemed somewhat tonally unfocused, as if the part lay a little beyond his natural range.

Teseo (Kyle Tingzon) and Ippolita (Janet Todd).
The smaller roles of Telemone and Antiope’s other sister, Orizia, were effectively taken by Mr. Anaya and the soprano Audrey Yoder (another POP alum), but the evening’s limelight mostly shone on the two romantically intertwined Greek / Amazonian couples. All four singers—Mr. Tingzon, Mr. Skarke, Ms. Filloux, and Ms. Todd—were highly effective in their roles, the standout arguably being Kyle Tingzon, whose big aria after he has been rescued by Ippolita from execution had real dramatic heft, the abraded silver timbre of his voice projected with laser-focused intensity that brought the biggest cheers of the evening.

Ercole su'l Termodonte is worth seeing for his contribution alone, but there was so much else to enjoy in this first thoroughgoing Baroque opera production by Pacific Opera Project. Let’s hope there are many more to come. Further performances take place on Thursday, January 12 (8:00 p.m.), Saturday January 14 (2:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m.), Friday January 20 (8:00 p.m.), and Saturday January 21 (2:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m.). Booking information is available here. Be there—but if you can't make it to the Ebell, the matinee on Saturday January 21 will be livestreamed on YouTube.  


Pacific Opera Project, Highland Park Ebell Club, 131 S, Ave. 57, Los Angeles 90042, 7 p.m., Saturday, January 7, 2023.
Images: Production photos: Martha Benedict; Vivaldi: Wikimedia Commons.

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