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Hercules and the Amazons

available at Amazon
Vivaldi, Ercole sul Termodonte, R. Villazón, R. Basso, P. Ciofi, D. Damrau, J. DiDonato, V. Genaux, P. Jaroussky, Europa Galante, F. Biondi

(released on February 15, 2011)
Virgin 6945450 | 144'01"
The musicological rediscovery of Antonio Vivaldi continues apace, with the image appearing over the last decade or two of a great operatic composer who also wrote some concertos. It is one thing to say that Vivaldi wrote prolifically for the opera, but it has been something else entirely to hear his works return to life in recording. Along with Armida al campo d'Egitto, La fida ninfa, Atenaide, Griselda, and several others in Naïve's Vivaldi Edition, we have reviewed recordings of Orlando furioso (by Modo Antiquo, part of a series for cpo) and Motezuma (from Il Complesso Barocco, in a rare diversion from the Handel opera series Alan Curtis is doing for Archiv). We will even be reviewing an actual staging of Vivaldi's Griselda later this summer, when Ionarts returns to Santa Fe Opera.

After a very successful Bajazet, Europa Galante undertook another Vivaldi opera in a mini-series for Virgin Classics, Ercole sul Termodonte. (Alan Curtis has released a DVD of another performance of the work, by his group, Il Complesso Barocco, rather notorious for the performance of his Ercole, tenor Zachary Stains, who half-wears the skin of the Nemean Lion and sometimes does not.) Appropriately enough, Europa Galante's music director and lead violinist, Fabio Biondi, undertook a Herculean labor to reconstruct this opera, which relates the story of one of the labors of Hercules, stealing the girdle of the Amazon queen. The opera does not exist in a complete score, but with the guidance of a complete libretto, Biondi matched the arias, preserved in separate sources, in some cases making replacements or substitutions for musical purposes, and composed the recitatives de novo. The word for the result is not "authentic," that bugbear term that became the badge of both honor and shame for the early music movement, but "speculative," and that's just fine. The premiere in Rome, in 1723, had a cast composed almost exclusively of castrati, for example, and Biondi sees no need to try to recreate it (even if one could).

Instead of his more usual team of early music specialists, who were cast in Biondi's first live performances of the opera, Biondi recorded it with a dream team of superstars not generally associated with Baroque music. Rolando Villazón, having struggled for some time with vocal health issues, is a rough-hewn Ercole, with odd vowel colors, a sometimes strained tone, and pitch often shy of true. Mezzo-soprano Vivica Genaux is a proud, volcanic Antiope, the Amazon queen who refuses to cede to Hercules, and soprano Patrizia Ciofi has a knife-like edge as Antiope's warrior sister, Orizia. There are two pairs of lovers, whose impossible love is finally united in marriage: a tightly coiled Joyce DiDonato as Ippolita (who has a gorgeous aria, Amato ben, recycled from an earlier opera in the third act, accompanied by theorbo and Biondi, presumably, on violin solo), who spares the life of the captured Teseo (the rich, almost manly mezzo Romina Basso, a Vivaldi favorite), and Alceste (a lyrical Philippe Jaroussky) paired with the soaring, fluttering Diana Damrau as Martesia, the queen's daughter (with faultless, pure high staccato notes in one of the more memorable arias, Se ben sente arder le piume). It is remarkable to realize that that aria was composed for a castrato, the notorious soprano Giacinto Fontana, known as Farfellino (Little Butterfly), who specialized in female roles of this type.

The only minor reservations are tenor Topi Lehtipuu, who struggles just a bit with the cleanness of his melismas as Telamone, and the women's chorus (the Santa Cecilia chamber chorus of Borgo San Sepolcro), which sometimes sounds off-pitch and acerbic, just a little too rough and Amazonish, and not in a good way. The players of Europa Galante make nothing but beautiful sounds, unified marvelously by Biondi's leadership. It is a generally good outcome, considering that the recording sessions stretched over three years: Joyce DiDonato blogged about her work on this recording at the first sessions, in oppressive heat in Florence, in July 2008. DiDonato noted a planned second session for some of the participants in January 2009, but a third session was then done in June 2010, for unspecified reasons. At the current price, about $18 for two CDs, it is a steal.


Anonymous said...

I am a bit confused. Do you consider Villazon's "odd vowel colors," "strained tone," and "pitch often shy of true" a major or minor reservation?

Charles T. Downey said...

It could be neither, actually. It's not a polished performance, but then again Hercules was not really known for his polish. It could be a problem for some listeners, but it's a strong voice with a lot of passion.