Saturday, February 18, 2017

Ercolo su'l Termodonte: Vivaldi Tackles Hercules

Despite some misgivings, I very much enjoyed getting to know Vivaldi's infrequently performed opera, but couldn't help but wish for a bit more in all areas of this production, musically, and dramatically. Sadly, a good bit of the singing was sub-par which is particularly disappointing when getting acquainted with a new score.

Zachary Stains meets with some pretty rough vocalism in his first bravura aria - the voice getting coarse and reedy in some of the lower passages and with some really smudgy coloratura to boot. (Note: I recently listened to Stains in the Christie led "Ulisse" - where he sounds like a different singer altogether.)

To his credit in what can't have been an easy task, Stains appears more natural and comfortable than I've ever encountered required to be naked for more than a split second. As most are by now aware, Stains is, save for a cape and a lion skin slung over his shoulder, completely nude for almost the entire opera. Physically, the kid has nothing to be ashamed of, great abs, strong legs and arms and physically, he makes a convincing Hercules.

Fortunately, his later arias are dispatched with far more attractive tone, with an unusual beauty to the upper mid range and higher notes, even though the role doesn't offer much opportunity for showy high notes). Similarly, the fierce coloratura he tackles in Act III poses less of a problem for him, though never completely at ease. Chalk it to warming up. He's a smart singer and knows how to make the most out of the recitatives and, along with his athletic physicality, brings an almost cardboard character very strongly to life presenting a most likable Hercules.

The most beautiful singing of the evening easily comes from Randall Scotting who doesn't (physically at least) resemble your "average" countertenor. Well built and solid, some early physical gestures seem a tad elaborate, for so strong a character, particularly from such a big guy. Once alone however, Scotting projects an easy, assured masculinity and his two big arias are dispatched stunningly, each absolutely swoon inducing, for fans of baroque opera. What makes them particularly enticing is his attractive timbre, with more of a rich contralto sound than most countertenors I have heard. Smooth and rich, Scotting moves through some of Vivaldi's most virtuoso writing with ease and exhibits a freedom that only comes from a genuine joy of singing. I look forward to hearing a lot more from him.

Mary-Ellen Nesi's Antiope wins top female honors, offering thrilling, hair raising singing and never letting her intensity flag for a moment, ending with her big aria before the curtain and bathed entirely in the blood red light of hell, giving us one of the best moments in the entire show.

A bit thin toned for my taste, Laura Cerchi's Martesia nonetheless hits all the comic aspects of the character just right.

As Alceste, Luca Dordello's singing was vocally inconsistent from start to finish; sometimes producing a lovely tone and other times pure, ear splitting acid. Inaccuracies abounded in the passagework making me believe coloratura is neither friend nor forte.

I liked the Italian countertenor Filippo Mineccia's Telemone. Not a big role, but makes something fun out of it, which is harder than it sounds.

Marina Bartoli had me at first, but then the voice sounded tired, offering up even more smudged fioriture and high notes of acid tone. She is lovely to look at, however, and she and Scotting make an attractive pair of lovers.

I've liked much of his work in the past, but John Pascoe's production and direction seems to have taken a "nymphs and shepherds" approach to something that needed more blood and gore, notwithstanding what is likely a record number of severed phalluse on any stage. In an interview, Pascoe admits to taking a lighter approach stating this is the closest thing to opera buffa Vivaldi composed. I think that approach was a mistake and it shows. The battle scenes lack any real sense of danger and the female's costumes had me wondering what if Star Trek of the 70's had mounted Walk├╝re?

From the pit, Alan Curtis ignites a mostly sparking performance from th 20 or so members of Il Complesso Barocco, though it must be said, some tempi seemed a bit brusque, likely contributing to some of the sloppy singing during the opera's more bravura moments.

Overall, it's a worthwhile watch and listen and a nice break from the overly familiar.


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