Visual Fantasy: Ercole Amante at the Opéra Comique

Cavalli – Ercole Amante

Ercole – Nahuel di Pierro
Giunone – Anna Bonitatibus
Deianira – Giuseppina Bridelli
Iole – Francesca Aspromonte
Illo – Krystian Adam
Pasitea / Clerica / Terza Grazia / Secondo Pianeta – Eugénie Lefebvre
Venere / Bellezza / Cinzia (prologo) – Giulia Semenzato
Nettuno / Eutyro – Luca Tittoto
Il Paggio – Ray Chenez
Licco – Dominique Visse
Prima Grazia – Marie Planinsek
Seconda Grazia / Primo Pianeta – Perrine Devillers
Terzo Pianeta – Corinne Bahuaud
Prima Aura – Olivier Coiffet
Seconda Aura / un Sacrificatore – Renaud Brès
Ruscello / Busiride / un Sacrificatore – Nicolas Brooymans
Un Sacrificatore – Constantin Goubet

Pygmalion / Raphaël Pichon.
Stage directors – Valérie Lesort & Christan Hecq.

Opéra Comique, Paris, France.  Friday, November 8th, 2019

For the first Parisian performance of Ercole Amante since 1981, the Opéra Comique entrusted the work to Raphaël Pichon, and his estimable Pygmalion chorus and orchestra, and to the directing team of Valérie Lesort and Christian Hecq.  Ercole is a magnificent work – well worthy of rediscovery.  It consists of some haunting laments, rousing choruses, and that familiar Cavallian combination of arias, declamatory scene setting, and gorgeous duets all flowing into each other.

Photo: © Stefan Brion

Written as a wedding gift from Cardinal Mazarin to celebrate the union of King Louis XIV to the Infanta of Spain, the lauding of the Kings of France, and the comparison of their regal majesties to Greek gods, might seem rather quaint to modern sensibilities, especially in a stirring prologue, which lauds the union and the kingdom of France.  The plot is pretty straightforward.  Ercole decides he wants his son’s fiancé, the comely Iole, but she’s not having any of it, at least initially, while his wife, Deianira, and a number of gods, as well as Ercole’s son, Illo, are a bit miffed by his actions.  Even if Ercole dies a painful death, he’s still elevated to immorality and united with beauty, so he gets a good deal in the end.  It makes for an entertaining few hours in the theatre.

Photo: © Stefan Brion

Particularly so, in Lesort and Hecq’s staging.  It struck me while watching that the were attempting to recreate some of the magic of baroque theatre in a twenty-first century setting.  They populate the stage with constantly-changing vistas – a verdant couch that grows hands to restrain Iole; Giunone making her first entrance flying in from the wings; Venere flying in on a pink bird; or the divers who also dive in from the wings into a surging blue ocean.  Not to mention a memorable final tableau with Ercole hoisted into the air on a golden star while fireworks go off all around him.  This is clearly the work of a team of immense technical gifts who not only have the vision, but also the ability, to transform these ideas into highly memorable images.  The fluency of the staging is incredibly impressive.  It had clearly been intensively rehearsed, with images flowing into one another with precision and efficiency.  Lesort and Hecq create a world that is full of fantasy, populated by gods, humans and monsters, and provide us with a staging that is visually staggering.

Photo: © Stefan Brion

 

The downside of this approach is that while the visuals are seriously impressive, and the technical skill with which the entire evening is executed is remarkable, the singers do seem to be left to themselves to a certain degree.  Of course, with singing actors of the calibre of Nahuel di Pierro’s Ercole, Anna Bonitatibus’s Giunone, Giuseppina Bridelli’s Deianira, not to mention Dominique Visse’s Licco and Ray Chenez’s Paggio, the stage was certainly populated with some believable, flesh and blood characters.  Yet, this wasn’t quite universal with one central character, in particular, coming across as passive and disengaged.  There was also a fair bit of standing to the front with arms outstretched, but one could also say that was in keeping with the style.  That said, the tenderness in the relationship between Deianira and Illo was most believable in their duet, amplified by the fact that at that point, the stage was completely bare, allowing the audience to focus on their predicament.  Ultimately, what we get is a great show, one that entertains, that beguiles with its sheer invention and technical impressiveness.

Photo: © Stefan Brion

 

Musically, as could be expected from these forces, the rewards were multiple.  Pichon’s forces are really at the top of their game.  Following that superb Mozart Requiem in Aix, what tonight reinforced was the sheer quality of this outstanding chorus and orchestra.  The choral sound is glorious – so even in blend, supremely accurate in tuning, and so tight in ensemble.  Chorus members had the opportunity to sing a few small roles during the course of the evening and, what became apparent, was the quality of the voices that make up this exceptional group.  What was notable about Pichon’s work this evening was his extraordinary ear for sonorities.  Whether in the enchanting sounds of harp, harpsichord and theorbo setting the scene, or the ceremonial brass emerging from the back of the hall.  The strings made a captivating noise, especially in the sleep music, the beauty of the string tone creating a comforting state.  Pichon made use of a large continuo section of 12 including gambas, harp, theorbo, harpsichords and more.  It gave the evening a sonic variety that seemed infinite.  The edition was compiled by Nicolas Sceaux and Pygmalion, with some numbers re-orchestrated by Pichon and Miguel Henry.

Photo: © Stefan Brion

 

The cast was handpicked from strength.  Di Pierro was superb in the title role. The voice has gained some wonderful resonance at the bottom, apparent as he descended to the sepulchral depths.  Even when negotiating some highly declamatory writing, there was never a tendency to hector, the tone always full.  He’s also an expressive actor, able to fill out his character’s predicament, and fully game in frolicking around the set.  Most impressive.  Bonitatibus brought her customary stylistic understanding to Giunone.  She made a striking entrance, flying in from the wings while negotiating some tricky tessitura that sat right in the passaggio.  Her ability to bring out beauty in the text was more than apparent, never afraid to pull her sappy, orange-toned mezzo right back, shading the tone with delicacy.  Bridelli is a new name to me and one I would very much like to see again.  The Italian mezzo is the owner of a silky mezzo with a steely top.  What distinguishes her singing, in common with Bonitatibus, is that instinctive sense of musicality that cannot be taught, the ability to use the line to create meaning and marry it to the text, embellishing the line to illustrate her character’s plight.

Photo: © Stefan Brion

 

It’ll be hard to do justice to the rest of the extensive cast.  As Hillo, Krystian Adam displayed a bright open and well-schooled tenor, lyrically and evenly sung.  Iole was sung by Francesca Aspromonte who sang pleasantly but seemed rather disengaged as an interpreter, her singing one-dimensional and lacking in light and shade, making little of the text and making her laments sound identical in mood to her celebrations.  Chenez brought his ripe, bright countertenor to the role of the Page, with impeccable comic timing, as did Visse who brought a lifetime of experience to the role of Licco, pointing the text with a tart falsetto.  Giulia Semenzato’s strawberries and cream soprano was a deliciously extrovert Cinzia in the prologue and alluring Venere later on; while Luca Tittoto boomed magnificently with a resonant bass and lugubrious beauty in his roles.  As mentioned above, the quality of the voices in the remaining roles was most impressive.

Photo: © Stefan Brion

Tonight, Pichon and his forces succeeded in making an ancient work seem fresh and vital, achieved through superb singing and orchestral playing.  This was very much an ensemble show, one that had been musically and theatrically extremely well rehearsed.  We were given a production that offered so much visual insight, the work of a team with the imagination and the technical capability to make it all possible.  Yes, there could have been more of a sense of the dilemma of individual characters, but the vast majority of the cast succeeded in making this living, vital music theatre.  It was received with a rapturous ovation from the Parisian public.

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