Petulant gods and goddesses courting and quarreling

One can imagine that the audience that sat in the Salle des Machines in 1662 Paris to watch the premiere of Francesco Cavalli’s rather long Ercole amante (made even longer by the addition of not one but eighteen ballet sequences courtesy of Monsieur Lully) endured the evening’s longueurs so as not to slight the King himself. The French aristocracy was more interested in the various appearances of classical Deus ex machina Greek deities than in the music itself or, for that matter, the excellent singing by a mostly Italian cast with the top stars of the 17th century.

So it not surprising that in the superb Naxos double CD video of a live performance of Cavalli’s opera, filmed over two days in November of last year at the Opéra-Comique in Paris, the emphasis is not on the music or the singing – excellent as both are – but on a superbly funny staging co-directed with panache by Valerie Lésort and Christian Neco, and lusciously designed with no budgetary-strings-attached by Laurent Peduzzi (set) and Vanessa Sannino (costumes). The production is made even livelier by the enchanting oversized puppets of Carole Allemand, Sophie Coeffic, and director Valerie Lésort.

The convoluted action takes place in a cartoonish Greece of Antiquity peopled by petulant gods and goddesses, nymphs and heroes occupying all sorts of flying, floating and rolling conveyances, and courting and quarreling their way into a finale in which the hapless Hercules of the title is elevated to godly status after being burned alive, past which ordeal all is well once more.

In a superb cast of Baroque specialists, the young Italian bass Nahuel di Pierro is top notch vocally and very funny as Hercules. Sopranos and mezzos Anna Bonitatibus, Giuseppina Bridelli, Francesca Aspromonte, Giulia Semenzato, and Eugénie Lefevbre are all five superb singers game for having a good time poking good natured fun at the eccentricities of their art and singing beautifully all the while.

Two wonderful countertenors – Ray Chenez and Dominique Visse all but steal the show with their outrageous comic turns, and tenor Krystian Adam brings welcome lyricism to his role. Bass Luca Tittoto is a sonorous Neptune who commands a miniature submarine for two.

Cavalli’s contribution to the development of Opera must be acknowledged, even though his modest gifts as a melodist pale by comparison to his precursors – Monteverdi above all. But the Lombardian composer – a singer himself – knew how to both write for the voice and for a small orchestral ensemble, which in this performance – the Orchestra Pygmalion – is beautifully helmed by the young maestro Raphaël Pichon, who, as a singer himself – knows precisely both how to lead when needed and how to follow when called for.

Rafael de Acha       ALL ABOUT THE ARTS

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