Antonio VIVALDI (1678-1741)
Ercole dul Termodonte (1723) [144:00]
Ercole - Rolando Villazon (tenor)
Teseo - Romina Basso (mezzo)
Orizia - Patrizia Ciofi (soprano)
Martesia - Diana Damrau (soprano)
Ippolita - Joyce DiDonato (mezzo)
Antiope - Vivica Genaux (mezzo)
Alceste - Philippe Jaroussky (counter-tenor)
Telamone - Topi Lehtipuu (tenor)
Coro da Camera “Santa Cecilia” di Borogo San Lorenzo
Europa Galante/Fabio Biondi
rec. July 2008, January 2009, June 2010, Saloncino, Teatro della Pergola, Florence
VIRGIN CLASSICS 6945450 [65:05 + 78:56]
Ercole was the first opera that Vivaldi wrote for Rome and, though we know nothing about the circumstances of the commission, he was out to impress. In this work he created what the booklet notes refer to as “an operatic sampler”, a compendium of every kind of aria and operatic trick that he was capable of producing, an introduction for the Roman opera-going public to all that was great about his art. The story is a very liberal re-telling of the ninth labour of Hercules. Hercules and his hero companions set out for the river Thermodon (Termodonte) and the kingdom of the Amazons where, after a series of adventures in love and war, he succeeds in winning the girdle of Antiope, the Amazon queen. For all its contemporary popularity, however, the score was subsequently lost and Ercole vanished into obscurity for centuries until Fabio Biondi set about the task of reconstructing it.
In a long and fascinating booklet note Biondi explains his process in reconstructing the opera. The key was that we still have the complete published libretto and, more importantly, the opera’s immense popularity led to almost every aria being copied and re-published separately in collections that were sold all across musical Europe. Biondi’s archaeology led him principally to the libraries of Paris, Münster and Turin where he found copies and rearrangements of most of the material he needed and pieced it back together to re-make the score as best he could. The process isn’t perfect: all the recitatives are gone and Biondi had to re-write these himself in an imitation of Vivaldian style. There is also no material for the choruses - these were made up of borrowings and pastiches - and one or two arias are lost entirely. On the whole, though, you have to take your hat off to Biondi for succeeding in a task as seemingly Herculean as the action itself.
The opera itself makes great listening. Vivaldi writes every kind of aria and showcases it to display his abilities as a composer at their most refined. We are exposed to every emotion with the register cranked up to maximum: rage, despair, love, vengeance, heroism, cowardice, frustration, infatuation, and everything in between. It’s also of a well judged length so that the tension doesn’t flag and the drama proceeds at just the right pace in its current format.
All of Biondi’s efforts, however, would be worth little were it not for the fact that he assembles a wonderful cast of performers to give the opera new birth. Singers from both the Baroque and Romantic worlds give their all to the project and it is exhilarating to hear familiar voices in music that has probably not been heard for centuries: the length of time it took to complete the recording is testament to the hectic schedules of 21st century operatic stars! Hercules himself is superstar tenor Rolando Villazon, though he is probably the least successful character due to his almost total lack of empathy with the style of the period. He certainly gives his all in the manner for which he is famous, but too often he pushes his voice to emotional breaking point and blusters dreadfully, most seriously at the accompagnato that begins Act 3. His opening aria is clearly too low for him, and he foghorns his way through Non fia della vittoria in a most unattractive manner. He can tone it down when he needs to, and he does so for his Act 2 aria on the nature of love, but he sticks out problematically among colleagues so distinguished for their refinement and sensitivity to period style. For all the attention he pays it he might as well be singing Alfredo!
He, however, is the only weak link: everywhere else you will find great riches. The women are all well contrasted so that there is never any danger of monotony. As Antiope, the Amazon queen, Vivica Genaux is extremely impressive. The masculine quality of her voice underlines her role as leader and her coloratura never detracts from her authoritative manner. She saves the best for last, her final aria displaying astonishing virtuosity in a breakneck torrent of vengeance and fury. As her war-like sister, Orizia, Patrizia Ciofi sounds austere, distinctively different to her colleagues. Her voice is smoky, pained at times, and she comes up with some hugely interesting ornamentations for the da capo section of her arias. Her interpretation also culminates in an incredible aria of defiance in Act 3. Joyce DiDonato as the third sister, Ippolita, is as wonderfully characterful as always. To her is given a wonderful pair of arias to begin Act 2: the first a love song accompanied by a gorgeous pair of duetting violins, the second a heroic aria of startling coloratura. She also acts most convincingly with the voice, giving it an entirely different colour for her final, almost oriental-sounding aria, showing her ability to reinvent the character as necessary.
Diana Damrau, as Antiope’s daughter Martesia, is appropriately girlish and fresh, winning in her innocence, with great coloratura in her opening aria, and she is at her most alluring in her Act 3 aria where she accepts Alceste’s love. Alceste himself is given to the heavenly voice of Philippe Jaroussky. He is a marvel among counter-tenors, producing sounds that are as beautiful as they are unearthly. He brings silky sensuousness to everything he sings, even his heroic aria at the end of Act I, and it is dream casting that a voice such as his is given so many arias about the nature of love. Topi Lehtipuu’s tenor is muscular and heroic, but in an entirely different manner to Villazon, lighter, more youthful and much more in keeping with the style of the piece. My greatest discovery, however, was Romina Basso, new to me. She produces absolutely gorgeous tone from a voice that is dark, silky, almost husky in places, coming very close to being a contralto. She sings with sensual allure in Theseus’s opening aria, reflecting on his love for Ippolita, then produces wonderful coloratura in her quicksilver aria when she realises Ippolita’s love is returned. She is quite wonderful and is a voice I will look out for again.
The anchor for the whole set is the always excellent playing of Europa Galante. By turns sprightly, energetic, languorous or euphoric, they are perfect for showcasing Vivaldi’s compendium of his art. Perhaps the greatest praise should go to Biondi himself who has not only brought this opera back from the dead but has had a hand in shaping its every contour so convincingly that we accept it as being the original text. His advice must surely have gone into the singers’ ornamentations which are sensitive, virtuosic and entirely in keeping with the spirit of the music.
Presentation of the set is in a slimline case with an excellent booklet containing text, translations, colour photographs and scholarly essays. Whether you buy this set to sample some magnificent singing or to get to know a once lost opera, you will find plenty to enjoy.
Simon Thompson
Whether you buy this set for some magnificent singing or to get to know a once lost opera, you will find plenty to enjoy.