Opéra de Versailles 2019-20 Review: Ercole Amante
A Fantastical Production Gives Cavalli Opera a ‘New Lease on Life’By William Sharpe
A Baroque opera with a goddess riding a flying pig and a sea-god in a submarine? These were just some of the unexpected combinations that you could see if you went to the Opéra de Versailles’ new production of “Ercole Amante.”
This co-production of the Opéra National de Bordeaux and the Opéra Comique was performed five times in Paris where it opened November 4, 2019 before moving to the Opéra de Versailles for two additional performances.
A New Lease on Life
Creating an intriguing new production of a forgotten work based on a mix of Sophocles and a story from Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,” the stage designers gave this opera by Cavalli a new lease on life, turning a story destined for seventeenth century French courtiers into a humorous and playful show accessible to today’s audience.
The piece was commissioned by Cardinal Mazarin for the marriage of Louis XIV to the Infanta of Spain which cemented the ties between Spain and France, the two most powerful countries in Europe. Performed for the French court at the Palais des Tuileries in 1662, this opera was meant to celebrate the virtues of marital love.
Initially this early Baroque opera was unpopular with audiences and was performed twice before being shelved until 1981 when it was put on by the Theatre du Chatelet.
To make this event a success, the production designers had to adapt a four-hour drama with complicated twists and turns, 27 characters, and lengthy ballet sequences (cut for this production) into a digestible experience.
In the mythological realm of Juno, Venus, and Poseidon gods fly down from the heavens, ghosts rise up from the underworld, and heroes such as Hercules can become immortal. In order for these many appearances and disappearances to be possible on stage, Baroque operas relied heavily on-stage devices such as trap-doors and flying machines which were the special effects of the day.
Fortunately, the team of designers Christian Hecq and Valerie Lesort had an endless store of clever ideas for how to present this opera in a fresh new way. In the first scene, the monster tamed by Hercules is represented as a timid green cartoon character inspired by Shrek.
The scene in which Hercules’ unhappy wife Dejanira sings of her rejection by her husband is given a comic touch, as the train that represents her suffering is so long that it fills the stage as she gradually walks back and forth across it.
By only having a minimalist set consisting of a plain Greek amphitheater, the designer Laurent Perduzzi is able to just use it as backdrop against which he can show off Vanessa Sannino’s “costumes-machines.” These are a creative solution to costume design which puts each character into a costume which is associated with the means of transportation in which the god or goddess is riding:
Juno appears in a hot air balloon which comes down from the sky like a deus ex machina right before Neptune pops his head up from the port-hole of a 19th century submarine, wearing a curly green beard covering half his body. Juno’s rival Venus comes down from above driving a flying pig, wearing aviator goggles, and holding Circe’s magic wand which turns men into pigs. In another of her disguises, she appears inside a giant pink tulip which gradually unfolds as you realize that the leaves are each made of people.
The allegory of Sleep was portrayed here as an immense white Buddha who was wheeled around the stage, being much too fat to walk. Other humorous aspects of the staging included dressing the winds known as Zephyrs, who took turns diving into the waves while they sang. in striped swimming costumes.
With their lighthearted manner taken from the commedia dell’arte, two comic-relief characters, Lychas and the Page, sung by countertenors Dominique Visse and Ray Chenez, comment on the drama and question the meaning of love.
However, these comic scenes are offset by a number of darker elements to the plot. When the story takes us down to hell, the stage goes dark and we see the chorus of tortured souls Hercules has killed, surrounded by fire. The chorus looks quite somber as the funeral procession follows Iole when she asks her father forgiveness for marrying his murderer.
The young French conductor Raphaël Pichon conducted the Orchestre Pygmalion with period instruments in an energetic reading of a score. In addition to the usual strings, percussion, and harpsichord, the piece calls for instruments such as cornets, basset horns, sackbuts, a theorbo, and a ‘douçaine,” which is a double-reeded wind instrument from the Renaissance.
This unusual mix of instruments gave a brilliant texture to the music, especially in the triumphant conclusion of the opera. Here the drums and basset horns are added to the strings to create a regal sense of ceremony for the wedding.
When the work comes to a close, the stage is full of choristers holding up gold stars representing Olympus, and planets are hanging from the ceiling. Hercules, having become a constellation, floats above the stage with Beauty, as Juno invites the royal couple attending the spectacle to celebrate their union. Fireworks go off and the curtain comes down in an atmosphere of triumphant celebration.
As Juno, goddess of marriage, Anna Bonitatibus sang with warm richness and beautifully agile vibrato which lent itself well to her passages of long held notes at the end of a phrase.
The Argentinian bass Nahuel di Pierro played the role of Hercules with great energy, displaying the flexibility of his voice in the many runs and ornaments which are a chance for Baroque singers to show-off their skill.
Giuseppina Bridelli gave a moving performance as Hercules’ abandoned wife Dejanira, while another Italian, Francesca Aspromonte, was a passionate Iole. This was especially true during her duets with her lover Hyllas, sung by Polish tenor Krystian Adam.
As the goddess of love, Giulia Semenzato brought elegant phrasing to her interpretation of Venus.
The opera was very well-received by the audience which demanded several curtain calls. The success of the production ought to encourage other companies to revive Baroque works, in stagings which combine unusual costumes and traditional settings.