02 January 2011

CD REVIEW: Antonio Vivaldi – ERCOLE SUL TERMODONTE (R. Villazón, R. Basso, P. Ciofi, D. Damrau, J. DiDonato, V. Genaux, P. Jaroussky, T. Lehtipuu; Virgin 6945450)


Antonio Vivaldi - ERCOLE SUL TERMODONTE (Virgin 6945450)

ANTONIO VIVALDI (1678 – 1741): Ercole sul Termodonte, RV 710 – R. Villazón (Ercole), R. Basso (Teseo), P. Ciofi (Orizia), D. Damrau (Martesia), J. DiDonato (Ippolita), V. Genaux (Antiope), P. Jaroussky (Alceste), T. Lehtipuu (Telamone); Coro da Camera ‘Santa Cecilia’ di Borgo San Lorenzo, Europa Galante; Fabio Biondi [recorded in the Teatro della Pergola, Florence, 24 – 31 July 2008, 2 – 6 January 2009, 6 – 7 June 2010; Virgin 6945450]

It was in the summer of 2006 that Spoleto’s Festival dei Due Mondi seized the attention of opera lovers worldwide with a production of Vivaldi’s forgotten—and previously-lost, or at least disassembled—Ercole sul Termodonte by British director John Pascoe, a production in which some fine singing by a young cast was outshone by the startling visual concept of Mr. Pascoe’s design, which was reliant upon phallic imagery and nudity among the principal singers.  It was the ill fortune of the cast, and especially of those singers who took the lead roles, to look at least as handsome as they sounded, so despite a DVD release of the production the effect of Vivaldi’s musical score was decidedly secondary.  The Spoleto production was an adequate and effective introduction to Ercole, however, and rumors circulated almost immediately that a studio recording of the opera was planned, featuring Italian violinist and conductor Fabio Biondi (whose editorial work produced the score that is performed on the present recording) and Europa Galante.

It is a testament to the dedication of Maestro Biondi and the potential of his lead tenor, Rolando Villazón, that the making of this recording—sponsored by Rolex—went ahead in the troubled economic times during which the sessions were held.  As is often the case with operatic recordings, there was much gossip about which singers would accept the challenges of Vivaldi’s music for the recording.  Europa Galante presented concert performances of Ercole throughout Europe with a cast similar to that of the recording, with Italian tenor Carlo Allemano an idiomatic, suitably heroic Ercole.  When the news that Rolando Villazón, whose ‘experimental’ disc of Händel arias proved one of the most-discussed recital discs of recent years, would sing the title role in the Biondi recording was confirmed, interest in the recording expanded beyond the usual pool of connoisseurs of Baroque opera.  It was easy to suspect that the presence of Mr. Villazón would unbalance the performance, but Virgin have assembled as starry a cast for this recording of Ercole as, comparatively, has ever been fielded for any operatic recording.

The libretto of Vivaldi’s Ercole, the work of Antonio Salvi despite having long been misattributed to Giacomo Francesco Bussani, is obviously drawn from Greek mythology as recorded by the historians Apollodorus and Justin.  The basis of the plot is the ninth (as ordered by Apollodorus) of the labors assigned to Hercules by Eurystheus as the demi-god’s penance for having slain his own children, the theft of the magical girdle possessed by Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons.  Salvi’s libretto adapts the myth in a manner typical of Eighteenth-Century opera, incorporating amorous intrigues and shifting alliances.  Accompanied in the pursuit of his task by the Greek heroes Theseus, Telamon, and Alceste (a king of Sparta not to be confused with the princess employed operatically by Lully, Händel, and Gluck), Hercules and his band encounter the noble Amazonian women, and the conquerors become the conquered as the Greeks surrender their hearts to the beautiful, brave Amazons.  The plot is contrived, offering little that modern audiences might consider ‘relevant,’ but as with the libretti by Salvi that were set by Händel there are moments of dramatic tension and poetic conceits that possess genuine distinction.  For all that the score was constructed from component parts extracted from the composer’s other operas, Salvi’s libretto for Ercole provided Vivaldi with ample opportunities to exercise his fondness for simile arias.  The music of Ercole largely matches the moods of the libretto, whether martial or romantic, and the editorial notes in the booklet provided with this release are very detailed in their identifications of the sources from which Vivaldi drew his music for the opera and upon which Maestro Biondi relied for his edition of the score.  [The Spoleto production, conducted by Alan Curtis, used a different edition of the opera, reconstructed by Alessandro Ciccolini.]  The recitatives used in the recording are adapted or newly-composed by Maestro Biondi, a practice that is hardly bothersome considering that the composition of recitative was often left to apprentices, novice composers, or an opera company’s maestro di cembalo from Vivaldi’s time well into the Nineteenth Century.  It is very interesting to note that a Papal ban on female performers in Roman theatres at the time of the first performance of Ercole meant that Vivaldi’s female roles were sung by castrati: how ironic that these Amazons, the most fiercely feminist figures of antiquity, were impersonated by men!  The ladies in this performance might legitimately be said to make amends on behalf of their mythological counterparts, however.

Musically, the recording begins on sound footing and maintains its gait until the final chord has sounded.  The choristers of the Coro da Camera ‘Santa Cecilia’ di Borgo San Lorenzo, eleven ladies under the direction of Andrea Sardi, sing incisively, bringing excitement to their limited contributions to the opera.  Europa Galante have emerged as one of the most consistently excellent period-instrument bands on the Early Music scene, and they play in this performance with the accuracy and power that are the marks of advocacy.  The continuo—consisting of harpsichord, theorbo, and ‘cello—is effectively deployed throughout, with especially eloquent shaping of contemplative secco recitative.  Being an earnest champion of Ercole, Maestro Biondi presides over the performance with obvious affection for the score, but he never allows zeal to distort the balance between egotistical heroism and tenderness that is at the heart of the opera.  Tempi are for the most part sensible, with nothing stretched beyond its breaking point and the singers reliably given paces at which they can approach their vocal hurdles comfortably.

Coping very comfortably indeed with his role as Telamone is Topi Lehtipuu, a rare tenor whose voice combines great flexibility with genuine beauty.  His role in Ercole does not give him a great deal to do, but everything that he does is accomplished with considerable aplomb and dramatic awareness.  Drama is likewise at the center of Patrizia Ciofi’s portrayal of Orizia, the belligerent sister of Antiope.  The slightly husky timbre of Ms. Ciofi’s voice, especially in its lower register, nicely contrasts her with the recording’s other high-voiced soprano.  Ms. Ciofi spits out her music with delightful vehemence, and when her lines soar above the ledger lines the voice soars brilliantly in tandem.  She seizes every musical opportunity and makes an indelible—and resolutely positive—impression.

The first pair of lovers is sung by soprano Diana Damrau as Martesia (who is made Antiope’s daughter by Salvi, rather than her sister) and countertenor Philippe Jaroussky as Alceste.  Ms. Damrau, whose typical repertory includes the bel canto heroines of Bellini and Donizetti, proves a very capable singer of Baroque music.  This is not to say that she alters her vocal technique to approximate the style of singing that is regarded by some scholars as appropriate to Baroque repertory: in fact, there is in this performance not the slightest hint of the white-toned honking and tweeting that is often deemed ‘stylish.’  Ms. Damrau approaches Martesia’s music with the same technical foundation with which she might sing Gilda or Lucia, and that is all to the good.  Also to her credit is the fact that the voice is uncommonly lovely throughout its range, and Ms. Damrau apparently has musical good sense in spades.  Whether shuddering with terror or tingling with new-found love, Ms. Damrau’s tone unfailingly conveys Martesia’s state of mind, and her phrasing is exemplary.  Mr. Jaroussky also masters some excellent, long-breathed phrasing, and his voice is also beautiful.  What it is not, alas, is masculine, and the dramatic profile of Alceste suffers.  Mr. Jaroussky is dramatically alert, however, and he works hard to bring to his performance the heroic fire and romantic ardor that his soft-grained voice lacks.  Musically, Mr. Jaroussky’s performance is superb, though occasional signs of stress in the upper register introduce a suspicion that Alceste’s music is, at least in part, slightly too high for Mr. Jaroussky (and, indeed, perhaps for countertenors in general).  United by their characters’ passions for one another, Ms. Damrau and Mr. Jaroussky sing compellingly.

The real firebrand of the opera is Antiope, the most overtly bellicose of Vivaldi’s Amazon queens, and her venomous hatred of the male sex is vividly portrayed in a take-no-prisoners performance from mezzo-soprano Vivica Genaux.  The patina of Ms. Genaux’s voice is dark, like aged bronze, but there is a brilliant edge to her singing of coloratura passages, underpinned by what is by any appreciable standard an astonishing technique, that is thrilling.  Hercules was perhaps the ancient world’s greatest hero, but from her first note Ms. Genaux establishes that in Antiope he has encountered an equal.  Capable of executing the most fiendish and bizarre feats of vocal pyrotechnics with complete ease, Ms. Genaux impresses most when she softens the focus and allows the voice to glow with simmering passion.  As her Amazonian sisters yield to love’s persuasion, Antiope prefers to die rather than submit to men, and Ms. Genaux’s singing meaningfully conveys her character’s nobility and determination.  In a sense, Antiope is the most one-dimensional character in the opera, unbending in her quest to maintain the power of her race, but in a performance as wonderful as Ms. Genaux’s she is also the most interesting character.  It would be tremendously difficult to resist the allure of Ms. Genaux’s performance, for there is always the promise when she starts to sing that there is something spectacular to be heard.

The second pairs of lovers, Ippolita (Hippolyta) and Teseo (Theseus), is sung by mezzo-sopranos Joyce DiDonato and Romina Basso.  As suggested by her acclaimed explorations of the music composed by Rossini for Isabella Colbran, Ms. DiDonato is a singer whose voice is perfectly placed between the conventional ranges of mezzo-soprano and soprano.  She has complete command of a silvery lower register, but gleaming top Cs likewise hold no terrors for her.  Vivaldi’s music for Ippolita inhabits the higher end of this vocal spectrum (the role was first performed by the soprano castrato Farfallino, who was said to have a compressed range but a very beautiful high register), and the attractiveness of Ms. DiDonato’s tone in this portion of her voice is remarkable.  She also demonstrates an innate understanding of the art of using vocal coloration to make dramatic points.  Musically, she faces nothing to which her technique is not wholly equal.  Ms. DiDonato has developed the enviable habit of being the undoubted star of every recording in which she participates, and only the high level of overall achievement in this performance prevents her from running away with the laurels in Ercole.  Contributing powerfully to that overall achievement is Ms. Basso, a singer whose voice enthralls with its smoky beauty.  In this performance, Ms. Basso reveals herself to be what might be termed a ‘singers’ singer,’ one for whom complete mastery of her music is an expectation rather than an exception.  Nothing in Ms. Basso’s performance is showy or extravagant for its own sake, but the prevailing cumulative perception of her performance is that she has delivered as complete a performance of a Vivaldi operatic role as one is likely to hear.  There is a beguiling sensuality in Ms. Basso’s singing, along with a credible sense of Teseo’s masculinity, that suggests that this hero is one whose love-making is as legendary as his war-waging.  Ms. Basso’s intensity is the perfect foil for Ms. DiDonato’s gossamer femininity: these two singers, giving magnificent performances, prove that the sort of operatic passion that makes naïve young listeners blush was not an invention of the Nineteenth Century.

If he is not the principal raison d’être for this recording of Ercole, the presence of Mexican tenor Rolando Villazón is sure to be the foremost focal point of interest in this recording.  Mr. Villazón’s vocal problems have been widely debated in recent seasons, and his disc of Händel arias conducted by Paul McCreesh proved divisive, both among aficionados of Baroque music and in the wider opera-loving public.  What is immediately apparent when hearing his performance in Ercole is that, if Mr. Villazón’s has recently been a voice in crisis, that crisis was largely abated during the sessions that produced this recording.  The voice is arrestingly dark and baritonal, yet there is also the suggestion—especially in secco recitative—that Ercole’s vocal lines take Mr. Villazón slightly beyond the lower boundary of his vocal comfort zone.  The voice is not large as recorded, but the dark tone makes an imposing, bitingly heroic effect.  Anyone who did not hear the Händel recital disc will likely be surprised by Mr. Villazón’s faculty for negotiating Ercole’s bravura passages, which are approached full-on and without hesitation.  The highest notes often sound disconnected from the rest of the voice, but the tone is secure throughout the range required by Ercole’s music.  Mr. Villazón’s performance is not a paragon of historically-appropriate singing as it is presently understood, but he sings in a manner that meets the demands of Vivaldi’s music without ever condescending to it and, all things considered, offers a performance that is a credit to himself, his colleagues, and the composer.

It is only rarely that Vivaldi achieved the exalted level inhabited by Händel as a musical dramatist.  Vivaldi’s operas are enjoyably innovative and musically rich without reaching the depths of emotion that are present in Händel’s best operas.  It would be dishonest to suggest that Ercole is one of the scores in which Vivaldi genuinely rivaled Händel, but the Italian composer was an adept man of the theatre who knew how to make a vivid impression.  It is a vivid impression indeed that is made by Ercole, one that has been carefully reconstructed and lovingly rearticulated by Maestro Biondi.  He is extraordinarily fortunate to have been joined in his task of breathing new life into Ercole by a cast without a single weak link.  Ercole does not leave the listener with the sort of cathartic experience that is possible when hearing one of Händel’s best operas, but this recording leaves one with the gratification of having heard a marvelous performance of an opera with many moments of fascinating beauty and power.

Antonio Vivaldi