Cavalli: Ercole Amante
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Commissioned to celebrate the marriage of the Sun King, Louis XIV, and Marie-Thérèse of Spain, the original production of Cavalli's Ercole amante was, at the time, the grandest show ever performed in Europe. DNO's contemporary, hilarious and surreal production, directed by David Alden, is a triumph of opera buffa, a riot of decoration and symbolism complemented by Constance Hoffman's
exceptional costumes. Luca Pisaroni's Ercole is heroic and melodious in turn, Veronica Cangemi is a splendid Iole, and the Chorus of De Nederlandse
Opera and Concerto Köln give a sublime performance under Ivor Bolton, a master of baroque music. An
outstanding production, filmed in High Definition and surround sound.
In one of the better rounds of classical Blu-ray (and in some cases, DVD at the same time) releases, Naxos offers five well-done, elaborate adaptations of exceptional works that rank among the more entertaining and effective in this cycle of such releases...
This was the first time any of us covered Ercole Amante, an underseen, underrated Francesco Cavalli work that was actually commissioned for the marriage of the Sun King, Louis XIV and Marie-Therese of Spain. The title character is a hero in a struggle over the future and how a marriage might just have on it. Experimental in its time, Constance Hoffman's costumes are exceptionally clever in bringing out the daring of the work back in the 1660s!
I really liked this one and it deserves rediscovery more than just about any other Opera I have seen in many years..
The 1080i 1.78 X 1 digital High Definition image in all cases is better than usual, save Tristan, which is a little softer and plagued with motion blur than expected though the stage production still looks good too. I was surprised in how good the others looked with fine color and more image stability than usual for such productions. Sadly, the anamorphically enhanced DVDs for Tristan and ballo are unusually weak, which made ballo a big surprise in comparison when the Blu-ray looked so much better. That leaves Ercole the best looking of the DVD versions covered here and one of the best of the Blu-rays.
The sound on the Blu-rays are all DTS-HD MA (Master Audio) lossless 5.1 mixes except ballo in PCM 5.1, with PCM 2.0 Stereo as secondary tracks in all cases, while the DVDs have DTS 5.1. The DTS on the DVDs are pretty good, but hit a point of strain often that the lossless DTS and PCM 5.1 mixes do not, which makes for interesting sonic comparisons. None of the Blu-ray versions had the kind of breakout soundfields I was expecting, but they were really good just the same.
Extras in all editions and formats include booklets inside their respective cases, while all discs also add Illustrated Synopsis and Cast Galleries. Minotaur repeats its DVD documentary Myth Is Universal, Ercole adds separate behind-the-scenes pieces with star Luca Pisaroni and Johannette Zomer (who has multiple roles) & a making of making of featurette, Giovanni adds a single interview piece with Stage Director Lluis Pasqual, Actor Carlos Alvarez & Conductor Victor Pablo Perez, while Tristan has its own making of featurette "Kinder, macht was Neues!" and the interesting Conductor Cameras option to watch Peter Schneider in action the whole way through. -- Fulvue Drive-in, Nicholas Sheffo, February 2010
It was 1659, Louis XIV of France was to marry Marie-Therese, and Cardinal Mazarin invited Francesco Cavalli to compose an opera in honor of the event. The result, "Ercole amante" [Hercules in Love]." A modern staging of it can be seen on an Opus Arte DVD, which holds a 2009 production from Het Musiektheater Amsterdam, conducted by Ivor Bolton.
This opera is of great historical interest, standing as it does between the first "fabula con musica" (as opera was called when it was invented just about 1600) and the opera seria, which catered more to the star singers than to the drama.
The framework is the royal wedding, while the rest of the opera tells the story of how Hercules (Luca Pisaroni) wants the captive princess Iole (Veronica Cangemi), despite the devotion of his wife Deianira (Anna Maria Panzarella) and the intervention of the goddesses Juno (Anna Bonitatibus) and Venus (Wike de Brummelstroete). I watched most of Act I, found I was unable to follow what was going on, switched to the 10-minute illustrated synopsis, found I understood about 1/4 of the plot, and settled back to enjoy the music and production on their own merits.
Classicists and drama majors will instantly recognize that the plot was inspired by Euripides' "Hercules Enraged."
The director hedged his bets. In one of those unimaginative bonus features, we are told that although "Ercole amante" is a tragic opera, it still has its humorous moments. Of course, there is some intended comic relief built into the libretto. But the director decided to make Hercules into a clown -- this, despite the fact that he is supposed to represent Louis XIV! So authenticity is blown to the winds right there.
For the most part, the costumes and scenery are those that might have been seen back in 1662, when it finally reached the stage. But the director thought it would be hysterically funny to show Hercules with two over-sized 6-packs of Budweiser, another character with a modern backpack, and other anachronisms that are just silly if not stupid. Worse still, the choreography (as is the case with at least two productions of Rameau operas) is strictly of the mid-20th-century frug, twist, and sudden muscle contortion sort that is as un-baroque as can be.
The dance of the mummies, while a little too modern, does have a creepy effect as the gauzy dancers totter to the music.
When Hercules first appears, he steps into high platform boots, a long blond wig and a plastic muscle shell, all of which make him look exactly like a particular rock star and/or a wrestler from half a century back. Here, the character is sung by a bass-baritone who finds some of the low notes below his range and who can do little acting while locked in that costume (which, he tells in an interview, was like a sauna).
The opera runs just over three hours, the bonus material just over an hour. The picture is in wide-screen format, and the subtitles are in six languages. -- Brattleboro Reformer, Frank Behrens, March 25, 2010
My tolerance for 17th century opera is generally low, but even I can appreciate the value in an underappreciated composer like Francesco Cavalli.
One of the most celebrated composers of early Baroque Opera, he's mostly been forgotten today. Out of his thirty-five operas, only La Calisto is performed with any kind of regularity.
De Nederlandse Opera's new video release of Ercole Amante is in fact only the second recording the work has ever received (a long out-of-print CD conducted by Michel Corboz was the first). Thankfully, this is an excellent (if bizarre) production of the opera, as well done as we're ever likely to see it.
Composed for the occasion of the marriage of Louis XIV of France, (there is a lengthy prologue paying tribute to this glorious monarch), Ercole is one of those strange operas where there is so much going on that the action is more confusing than a Lars van Tier film. Boiled down to its most basic elements, the plot concerns the great hero Ercole (Hercules), who is in love with the captive princess Iole. There are two major problems therein: firstly, she's in love with his son Hyllo, and, secondly, Ercole is already married.
After the usual "she's betrayed me, no she hasn't" and "he's dead, no he's not, yes he is, actually no he's not" entanglements common to the era, Ercole is accidentally killed via a poisoned robe by his betrayed wife Deianira and packed off to Heaven, where, because he is a great hero if not a particularly nice guy, he gets to marry the goddess Bellezza. On top of all that, throw in ever clichéd devise of Operas Buffo and Seria that you can think of. Warring goddesses? Check. Cheeky servants? Check. Magic spells? Check. A visit to the underworld for the usual vengeful ghosts? Check. A storm at sea which ends with a countertenor getting eaten by a fish? Check and double check.
With so much to deal with, it's little surprise that David Alden's production fails to make much sense of the proceedings. While never quite as radical as his twin brother Christopher's, Alden's productions have always have resulted in a good amount of head scratching, in a word: the "huh?!" factor. Since Ercole has the "huh?!" factor build in, it's a perfect vehicle for Alden's insanity, and he plays up the ridiculousness. This is a world where anguished queens in 17th century finery stand next to servants dressed as 70s-style pimps, where dignified, ethereal goddesses suddenly break out into Bollywood dance moves, and of course, the obligatory squadron of giant dancing babies. The madness onstage shouldn't work as well as it does, but even if it's not very cohesive it's certainly entertaining.
Alden's fine cast is up to the challenge of whatever he throws at him. Luca Pisaroni, in the title role, is most challenged: when Ercole first appears, feeling lovesick and down in the dumps, he is shown to be a perfectly normal man, but over the course of his first scene, he puts on a costume consisting of a plastic muscle suit, platform shoes and a long blond wig, in a look apparently modeled after Dog the Bounty Hunter. Pisaroni spends the rest of the opera stomping around onstage in this constricting garb, and not only pulls it off with flair but also brings a lyrical, darkly-hued baritone to the bullying title character. His death scene is a fearless example of commitment, as Pisaroni lurches and crawls about the stage smearing himself with blood and singing an endless monologue of anguish before finally keeling over. Magnificent: I suspect he would be an excellent Don Giovanni.
He is backed up by an exquisite supporting cast, which includes Baroque specialists like Umberto Chiummo, Mark Tucker and Johannette Zomer, all of who do excellent double duty in a series of cameo roles. Veronica Canegmi suffers an unflattering make-up job but uses her light soprano exquisitely as Iole. Likewise Jeremy Ovenden is shoved into a costume making him look like an obese 12-year-old, but sings ravishing as Hyllo.
Anna Maria Panzarelli is the excellent Deianira, the distant ancestor of Countess Almaviva. Mezzos Anna Bonitatibus and Wilke te Brummelstroete deserve their divinity as Venere (Venus) and Giunone (Juno), who respectively aid and foil Ercole at every turn. Bonitatibus is especially noteworthy, her darkly colored voice highlighting the danger lurking behind every word the goddess utters. Marlin Miller is fussy and indistinct as the comic servant Licco, but countertenor Tim Mead is so funny his sidekick the Page that it makes one wish he doesn't get killed off halfway through the opera. (He's the aforementioned fish food.)
Since there are several ballets written into the opera (composed by the French King's court composer Lully rather than Cavalli), the dancers in this opera are nearly as important as the singers. The choreography of Jonathan Lunn and the fine dancers, who are asked to perform everything from 17th century court dances to acrobatic flips to Mark Morris-style modernism, are definitely worth a mention. Also notable are the effective sets of Paul Steinberg and the endlessly inventive costumes of Constance Hoffmann. The Nederlandse Opera Chorus and the Concerto Köln also provide generally fine work, led by the expert baton work of Baroque specialist Ivor Bolton.
More good news in is the packaging. Opus Arte usually has excellent presentational skills, and this is no exception. The menus, picture and sound are all beautiful. There's also, as I've come to expect from Opus Arte, several interesting bonus features, including a half-hour behind the scene feature, which features plenty of rehearsal footage and interviews with many of the singers, Alden and several members of the production team.
Also included are two documentary "meet the singer" profiles on Zimmer and Pisaroni, who comes off as a charmingly affable fellow unafraid of playing with his dog in the rain on the day of a performance (a refreshing change from the hypochondria that most singers, myself included, seem to fall into.) These bonus features are the cherry on top of the sundae; combine them with the strength of the performers, the bizarre wit of the production and the rarity of the opera to make a guaranteed recommendation. -- Parterre Box, Baritenor, March 27, 2010
So in comes Hercules: not the one of Hollywood's Reeves boys, not your circus strongman, but a suave Italian baritone, intoning praise for the art of lovemaking, Ars Amatoria well-defined by his own creator, a fellow name of Ovidius Naso, in his masterly Metamorphoses. not many years before. Hercules in Love ("Ercole Amante")was first seen by a Parisian audience, February 7, 1626, deserves space on opera's upper shelf. A recreation of that performance, that preserves the notes and interpretive detail and - even more - honors the spirit of the original masterpiece, awaits your pleasure in a two-disc package produced by Opus Arte, distributed under the aegis of Naxos, one of the few outfits that still proclaim, (and prove) that a serious-music label can dispense some measure of wonder and surprise. Yes, surprise; this is my first acquisition on the new Blu-Ray technology. What we have here is a putative re-creation of Francesco Cavalli's serio-comic opera, captured with astounding clarity as it just possibly took shape at the Théâtre des Machines at the Palais des Tuileries (but this time with an audience of something like 7,000). The program even lists the music composed to accompany the King and his entourage as they mosey to their seats; imagine that happening here: martial, menacing, fearsome music to escort Mark Swed and me to our aisle seats! The recorded performance happened last January at, as you may have guessed, Het Muziektheater Amsterdam, which has already sent two Monteverdi operas of similar high imagination, Return of Ulysses and The Coronation of Poppea, to our L.A. Opera, both directed by Pierre Audi and both outstanding accomplishments in the treacherous realm of "historically informed" revivals of very old, very great music, restored to brimming life. Some history: We usually set a date in 1609, the year of Monteverdi's l'Orfeo, as the birth-year of the hybrid "Dramma per musica" that would soon metamorphose into the public entertainment known as Opera. It was Italy (of course) that built the world's first public opera house, in 1634. The new art nourished a large and often somewhat weird passion for extravagant vocal display. David Alden's staging creates a splendid, integrated company with, as usual, moments of Aldenesque madcap. They are remarkably proficient in maintaining the sense of direction in this difficult stuff; the opening aria, with the Hercules of Luca Pisaroni, which he delivers while strapping on a set of plastic musculature piece by piece, is nothing you want to try at home. From its time and place we expect a certain departure from reality in the plotting, and Francesco Buti's libretto, with its plastic-muscle-bound hero in and out of amorous involvement with Venus, Juno and (!) his mother, does not disappoint. I hope I haven't overstressed the antiquarian value of this Ercole project and the other few attempts to revive and restore the particular marvels in our musical heritage. The music is, above all, beautiful; there are great scenes that linger in the memory; the emotional power derives from the confluence of the harmonious and the dissonant, as it does in Mozart or in Wagner. You smile at the artificialities; then there comes a scene - a multitude of characters including parents, offspring and at least one imperial ghost of a nobleman recently deceased, gathered in a darkened prison cell, imploring the lordly Hercules to spare their lives -( I think I have some of this right). The music turns rich and plangent, as it often does in comparable, confrontational moments in Verdi, and you just look away from the dramatic absurdities and drink in the beauty. Ivor Bolton is the conductor, leading Concerto Köln, the excellent ensemble of many superb recordings (and which is booked into the Park Plaza Hotel in a not-to-be-missed event on May 3, Vivaldi, Sammartini,and Brandenburgs), to do his bidding. -- So I've Heard, February 25, 2010
The Performance Originally commissioned by Cardinal Mazarin to celebrate the marriage of the "Sun King," Louis XIV, and Marie Therese of Spain, Cavalli's Ercole Amante took two years to complete and was first performed at the Tuileries in Paris, France, on 7 February 1662. It is Cavalli's only opera written for Paris. With an Italian libretto by Francesco Buti based on Sophocles' The Trachiniae and the ninth book of Ovid's Metamorphoses, Ercole Amante tells the story of Ercole (Hercules) (Luca Pisaroni) who lusts after Iole (Veronica Cangemi), but she hates him for having killed her father. She instead is in love with Ercole's son Hyllo (Hyllus) (Jeremy Ovenden), who in turn is in love with her. Ercole, finding this out, wants to kill his son, but he relents, only after Iole agrees to marry him. Ercole instead imprisons his son in a high dungeon. Meanwhile, Ercole's wife and Hyllo's mother, Deianira (Anna Maria Panzarella) sees Hyllo, in despair, plunge to the depths of the river Styx from his high dungeon and, believing him dead, seeks the aid of Licco (Marlin Miller) who promises to help her and Iole get revenge on Ercole. Just as Ercole is about to marry Iole she saves herself by giving him an enchanted shirt and Ercole is instantly killed. This production at the Het Musiektheater Amsterdam with the Concerto Köln and Chorus of De Nederlandse Opera by stage director David Alden and set designer Paul Steinberg is filled with quaint intentional anachronisms that add to the opera's humor, such as an oddly placed mobile phone, a six-pack of Heineken mini-kegs or Ercole's pro-wrestler action-figure costume. Also making this revival of Cavalli's baroque opera a grand and marvelous achievement is the informed conducting by Ivor Bolton, beautiful vocal performances by Anna Maria Panzarella and Veronica Cangemi along with a charismatic performance by Luca Pisaroni as Ercole. Video Quality
Originally captured in high definition, Ercole Amante arrives with a splendid 1080i/60 AVC/MPEG-4 encoding on Blu-ray from Opus Arte. The detail of the production's set and costumes comes through effortlessly. Video noise is not an issue and shadow details are strong while black levels are deep.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.0 and PCM 2.0 audio mixes on Ercole Amante both offer dynamic and clean sound with deep percussive instruments and superb instrumental separation across the soundfield. Vocals are clear and natural. The 5.0 program is mixed from an audience perspective and provides a good balance of ambience in the surround channels that effectively captures a live venue sound.
All supplements appear on Disc 1 and are in high definition.
The supplements provided on this release are:
* Synopsis -- Audio synopsis
* Cast Gallery (1.78:1; 1080i/60)
* Behind the Scenes with Johannette Zomer (1.78:1; 1080i/60; 0:10.28)
* Behind the Scenes with Luca Pisaroni (1.78:1; 1080i/60; 0:12.38)
* The Making of Ercole Amante (1.78:1; 1080i/60; 0:29.27)
The Definitive Word
Ercole Amante is rarely performed and not often thought of as one of the great operas, but this oft-forgotten opera is and was responsible for influencing the French classical scene for decades after. De Nederlandse Opera and Opus Arte are to be applauded for this stupendous and immeasurably enjoyable revival. -- Blu-rayDefinition.com, Brandon DuHamel, March 9, 2010
You think your family is dysfunctional? Take Hercules' crew--please. The half-god, half-mortal strongman has problems galore, woes which tended not to make it into any of those Steve Reeves Italian opuses from half a century ago. You have to go several centuries further back, in fact, to get to Francesco Cavalli's little known and very rarely performed Ercole Amante, a wonderfully silly (at least in this production by the Nederlandse Opera) piece which takes nothing seriously as it explores the vagaries of love and desire. Ercole Amante (Hercules in Love) finds our muscled hero (Luca Pisaroni) desperately in love with his own son's paramour, Iole (Veronica Cangemi) not exactly the basis for fun family dinners. Unfortunately, Hercules also happens to have killed the poor lass' father when he rebuffed Hercules' advances toward his daughter. That leaves Iole less willing than ever to consider Hercules' amorous aims. Of course, there's also Hercules' long suffering wife, Deianira (Anna Maria Panzarella), who watches her husband's middle aged crisis with alarm and outrage. Seemingly everyone either has a God or two in tow, or manages to invoke one (or more) to aid their cause, so there's a whole Heavenly retinue along for this roller coaster ride of an opera.
The name Francesco Cavalli is probably not that familiar to even many opera aficionados, but he had a rather amazing reputation throughout the 17th century. A student of Monteverdi, Cavalli was hailed not only as a composer of some repute, but also as an incredible organist and an excellent singer. Cavalli actually was instrumental in helping to make Venetian opera the paradigm of the idiom during the Baroque era, and the composer was also one of the progenitors of tragédie lyrique. Ercole Amante finds Cavalli working in more traditional buffa territory, at least in this outlandish production recorded live in 2009 at the Het Musiektheater Amsterdam. With a slyly winking direction by David Alden complemented by simply amazing sets and costumes by Paul Steinberg and Constance Hoffman, this Ercole is a wonder to behold, a brilliantly buffoonish trip through both oversized emotions and biceps.
Ercole Amante's libretto by Francesco Buti is adapted from Ovid's Metamorphoses, and we indeed are witness to several metamorphoses throughout this splendid production. The piece was written to honor the arranged marriage of Louis XIV with Spain's Marie-Thérèse, though problems with a specially built theater able to handle the massive stagecraft demands of the piece kept Ercole from actually being premiered until two years after the nuptials. Ercole begins with a Prelude exulting the joys of being French, as well as an end to the long war with Spain. The Ensemble morphs itself, via cascading ribbons of purplish blue fabric, into various rivers and seas, as we see Louis XIV (Pisaroni) and his bride in their marriage chamber.
One of the funniest metamorphoses of the evening occurs when we get into the main story of the Hercules clan itself. Pisaroni comes downstage and dons a gigantic muscled rubber suit to become the Greek semi-God. Wearing a "Gorgeous George" blonde wig and a skimpy pair of briefs capped by a sort of gigantic WWF heavyweight champion belt, it's a delicious send up of everything you've ever thought about dunderheaded strongmen. We then begin to wend our way through five (yes, five) acts of completely ridiculous mismatched couples, all aided (or in some cases, literally put to sleep) by various Gods and Goddesses who reveal themselves to be their own dysfunctional family, each working at cross purposes to the other to attain their individual goals.
Hercules' son Hyllo (Jeremy Ovenden) is a sort of petulant teen, here wearing denim shorts and a more classical top. You almost half expect him to erupt with a sighed, "Da-ad," with eyes rolling. Iole seems the model of virginal correctness, even when she's alight a magical, leafy couch which lessens her resolve not to give in to Hercules. Surrounding this daffy bunch of mortals is an equally absurd group of immortals, including Juno (Anna Bonitatitus), who repeatedly simply puts the humans to sleep (courtesy of Sonno, the sleep God) to keep more craziness from occurring.
The original production of Ercole Amante was slated to be the first offering at the then highest of high-tech theatrical palaces the Salle des Machines. While the actual building did take several unexpected years to complete, the final edifice sat no fewer than an astounding 7,000 audience members. While the Het Musicktheater may not match those numbers, this is a gorgeously managed production, with so much fun in the stagecraft that at times Cavalli's rhythmically acute and wonderfully melodic music almost takes a back seat. (It should be noted that the ballet segments feature the music of Jean-Baptiste Lully, as was the case in those days of forced collaborations). This Ercole features one stunningly rendered costume after another, a riot of color and pomp and circumstance, mixed with some outré elements, such as gigantic blow-up seraphim and mummy-like denizens of the underworld. It makes for a pageant of unending color and surprise, with just the right amount of humor and silliness sprinkled into the proceedings.
We're entering what I consider to be the late adolescence of the Blu-ray era, and we're finally getting some really interesting offerings from distributors like Naxos, which handles these Opus Arte Blu-ray releases. While I'm never one to complain about multiple releases of classic works (and even less than A-list pieces, as in the strangely multiple-released Sylvia by Delibes, for instance), it's wonderful to finally be delving into pieces like this, wonderful little treasure troves that have never really made it into the repertory of most major companies, and which yet offer glories untold in both their music and their libretti. Ercole Amante may seem like a strange piece to "celebrate" a marriage; after all, it takes five acts of dalliances and misunderstandings to get to its putative "happy ending," which is only arrived at by seemingly killing off its hero. But it's a celebratory piece, nonetheless, and that very ambience should spill over to the release itself, yet another reason to celebrate.
I get occasional complaints from some readers who want these usually live-for-television HD tapings to look more like feature films. They decry the typical 1080i resolution as if it were a throwback to VHS days. All I can tell them is I find a lot of Opus Arte's AVC encoded 1080i 1.78:1 images absolutely spectacular, if at just a hair less than full 1080p splendor. Ercole Amante is one of the best opera releases we've been treated to from an image standpoint, with absolutely jaw-dropping colors and detail. What a symphony of colors this beautiful production offers us, from the relatively staid and reserved golds, grays, purples and reds of the opening Prologue to the really eye-popping saturation of golds and blues in the final, "Heavenly" Postlude. Detail is exceptional throughout Ercole, with fleshtones accurate, excellent contrast and no artifacting to report, especially impressive when one witnesses the exceptionally busy patterns of the closing
Likewise, the DTS-HD MA 5.1 recording is, to put it simply, practically perfect in every way. Cavalli's music is frankly lesser known than the major composers who more frequently dot Opus Arte's releases, but this performance, helmed by conductor Ivor Bolton leading the marvelous Concerto Köln, is a model of Baroque floridity grounded by a more classically restrained balance, especially in the gorgeous choral singing of the Nederlandse's chorus. This is a warm and inviting soundtrack with exceptional clarity and good dynamic range. Surround channels are utilized quite effectively in the antiphonal moments, as in the Prologue when the offstage chorus is clearly discrete from the onstage chorus. Solo and duet moments are also very well handled directionally, with Pisaroni's commanding voice spilling over the music with luscious liquidity. You may not have heard much Cavalli before this outing, but my hunch is you're going to want to hear a lot more after you listen to this superb recording and performance.
Several excellent supplements are on disc 1 of this two-BD set. Along with the expected illustrated synopsis (which due to Ercole's rather labyrinthine plot runs well over 10 minutes) and cast gallery, there are 10 minutes each devoted to costars Pisaroni and Johannette Zomer. A 29:27 Making of featurette rounds out the extras.
We reviewers tend to be an awfully jaded lot at times. But every so often a wonderful little surprise comes down the pike to reawaken our love and enthusiasm. Ercole Amante is a near perfect soufflé, wonderfully melding Cavalli's gorgeous music with an outlandishly expressive physical production. Thank Heaven (literally in this case)--it's time to have fun at the opera again! -- Blu-ray.com, Jeffrey Kauffman, March 9, 2010
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I love many of our more modest productions, too, and I'm not normally drawn to grandeur, especially grandeur for the sake of grandeur. But when it's all put together with vision and skill, as here, I'm all for it.
I would advise viewers to start with the Extras on Disc 1, especially the synopsis which you should go through twice before watching Disc 1 and once between Discs 1 and 2 in order to review. I don't have much to add to what other reviewers said the music except that the orchestra had 42 musicians playing which I think is much more than usual for operas of this period. I doubt that I would simply listen to a CD of Ercole Amante but the combination of music and stage action makes for a very rewarding experience.
Costuming is only the edge of the zany visuals in this lavish staging of Ercole Amante, as cluttered with sight gags as a page in the children's book Where's Waldo. If you are hoping for an "authentic" 17th C Baroque staging ... if you've ever griped earnestly about "Euro-Trash" productions... STOP! Don't bother to read this review and bother even consider buying this DVD. This production is "over the top" in every way except nudity. It's bizarre, imaginative, hilarious, and utterly out of keeping with any poignant emotions expressed in either the libretto or the music. I could consider that 'cognitive dissonance' a grave distraction, an aesthetic wrong-headedness, if I chose to. But Free Will exists, at least in this review, and I choose to be dazzled by the ludicrous antics and visuals as well as by the exquisite singing of all the cast, especially by soprano Anna Bonitatibus in the role of Juno.
Francesco Cavalli (born a humble Caletti in 1602) was Monteverdi's pupil and eventual successor at San Marco in Venice. He played some role in stimulating Monteverdi to return to opera composition in the 1630/40s, and it's thought that he in fact composed much of the third act of Monteverdi's Poppea. His reputation spread throughout Europe, as a operattist, until Cardinal Mazzarin, also an Italian by birth, invited him to compose an opera to celebrate the wedding of the young Louis XIV to the Spanish Infanta Marie-Therese. A new state-of-the-art theater, the Salle des Machines, was intended to house the production, and Cavalli wrote his opera to fit that stage. As it happened, the theater wasn't finished, Cavalli had to substitute an earlier composition, and Ercole Amante was delayed until 1662, when 7000 people attended the "opening". It was a dire failure. The acoustics were dismal, the stage machinery noisy, and the hall bitterly cold. Cavalli returned to venice in chagrin and disappointment. Fortunately he got over his snit and composed another six operas before his death in 1676.
Ercole Amante is both the story of Hercules's last amour and death, and an acclamation of the glory-to-be of the Sun King, Louis XIV. Sycophantic? You betcha! but how many composers were ever invited to composer an opera for the nuptials of the most imposing monarch in European history? In fact, Cavalli was perhaps the biggest name in music in the mid 17th C, and he was the indispensable link between the 'seconda prattica' monody of Monteverdi and Landi and the incipient development of French Baroque opera as it diverged from both Italian and German opera throughout the 17th and 18th Centuries. Cavalli's operas were "through composed" recitativo, sparked by occasional duets and ensemble ariosos, rather than the more familiar Handelian recitativo/da capo aria pattern that survived through Mozart and Rossini. But Cavalli had an 'assistant' during his Parisian enterprise, an ambitious young Italian transplant named Lully, and it was cavalli's influence of Lully that shaped French musical destiny. The ballet 'entrances' in Ercole Amante were, in fact, composed by Lully, and Lully was quick to assert that HIS music was what brought Cavalli some success.
Hercules in this opera is a nasty brute, a raging merciless, murderous egomaniac ready to slay his own son in order to get into bed with Iole, who is in love with Hyllo. There is a brutal cynicism concealed in the libretto of this opera, and an utter lack of "Christian" morality that comes as a surprise, given the severe piety that Louis XIV professed. In the end, despite his villainies, Hercules is 'assumed' into the pantheon of the Olympic Gods. Then, in the musical epilogue, Hercules is transformed before our eyes into the Sun King himself, announcing a reign of universal peace and prosperity. One has to wonder how such a libretto was comprehended at the time of its composition. Was it then as inherently double-sided as it is in this production, a strange melange of cynical humor and homage to grandeur?