Vivaldi - Ercole su'l Termodonte (2007) [DVD9 NTSC]
Actors: Alan Curtis, Zachary Stains, Mary-Ellen Nesi, Laura Cherici, Luca Dordolo
Directors: John Pascoe
Format: NTSC, Dolby, Widescreen, Subtitled
Subtitles: English, French, German, Italian
Aspect Ratio: 1.77:1
Number of discs: 1
DVD Release Date: June 26, 2007
From Spoleto, Italy. Starring Zachary Stains. Duration: 136 minutes.
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Admirers of Baroque opera in innovative stagings must be thankful to Dynamic for giving us this DVD from the 2006 Spoleto [Italy] Festival of Vivaldi's little-known Ercole su'l Termodonte. Whilst one is grateful for every opportunity to hear Baroque operas in committed, fluent performances, the now-standard fare of Händel operas wears rather thin, so it is especially gratifying to have this Vivaldi score given top-drawer treatment in this production by esteemed director/designer John Pascoe.
Musically, the production is in the hands of American conductor Alan Curtis, a renowned specialist in the operas of Händel and Vivaldi, several of which he has recorded with superb casts for Archiv/DGG and Virgin/EMI. More so here than in his major-label recordings Curtis has the distinct advantage of bringing a fresh approach to a score that is familiar neither to audiences nor to record buyers. This perhaps allows Curtis greater flexibility in bringing a personal 'stamp' to the score, and he achieves many fine effects. One aspect of performance in which Curtis rarely fails to impress is the pacing of secco recitatives, which here are characteristically shaped for maximum dramatic continuity. It could be argued that Vivaldi's secco recitatives are a bit overlong, but Curtis' guidance (coupled with the alert declamation of his cast) minimizes this concern. Arias are less successful: often one feels that tempi are just that indefinable fraction too slow or too fast, affecting the dramatic verisimilitude of a particular moment in the text or challenging the singers unnecessarily. Still, in a score as unfamiliar as this and without having access to a printed score (to say nothing of the autograph), there is nothing upon which to base these observations but one's own perceptions, and these differ among all listeners. Curtis paces a performance that builds naturally without forcing, and for this one must applaud his skill in this repertory as much as Vivaldi's skill as a composer for the theatre.
There is likewise much to enjoy among Curtis' cast. Young American tenor Zachary Stains (Tiridate on Curtis' award-winning Virgin/EMI recording of Händel's Radamisto) approaches the vocal hurdles of the title role with considerable finesse and proves a singer of both style and substance, producing superb diction throughout and scaling the heights of Ercole's arias with flair. He also brings off the physical aspect of his scantily-when-clad-at-all character with athletic grace and unperturbed dignity. Young American countertenor Randall Scotting is similarly impressive as Teseo (Vivaldi and his all-purpose libretto are little concerned with fidelity to mythology, incidentally), singing with assurance and generally warm tone. Also singing with great fluidity and attention to the text is mezzo-soprano Mary-Ellen Nesi, 'star' of mdg's series of Händel recordings (Oreste and Arianna in Creta, with Tamerlano due on American shelves in August 2007). Here as elsewhere, Nesi proves herself worthy of inclusion among the finest 'early music' mezzo-sopranos active today, alongside Banditelli, Bartoli (arguably), Larmore, Mingardo, and Prina. Alas, the same level of excellence does not persist among the higher-voiced female roles, with sopranos Laura Cherici and Marina Bartoli singing proficiently but struggling with coloratura and upward extensions. Luca Dordolo and Filippo Mineccia in secondary roles are capable but lack distinction.
Pascoe's production conjures a classical world with a decided phallic fixation with designs that manage to be both evocative of conventional mythology (to the extent that his characters look as one imagines that Greek mythological figures of this vintage would have looked) and strangely contemporary. The phallic imagery is intrusive in the sense that it demands attention throughout, but this emphasizes (without cheapening) the fact that the mythological entanglements among Hercules, Theseus, Admetus, Alcestis, and Hippolyta are essentially sexual struggles. This faithfully reproduces the twists of Vivaldi's score but also 'works' as theatre in a modern sense. Stylistically, nudity is used far more effectively than in several other operatic productions I have seen, the physical nudity in Pascoe's production emerging as a parallel to the emotional nudity displayed by the characters. Pascoe achieves tableaux that are visually and emotionally arresting, providing a superb 'frame' in which to introduce modern audiences to the skill with which Vivaldi depicted the personal tribulations of these cardboard figures of lore.
The [Hi-Def] picture and sound provided by Dynamic are uniformly excellent, giving one the impression during home viewing of having a prime seat in the stalls.
With only small reservations concerning the quality of the sopranos' performances and occasional misfires from Curtis, this is heartily recommended to all those who enjoy Baroque opera, Vivaldi in particular, or rare music being performed by a talented, diligent, and well-prepared cast.
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