Opera Review: ERCOLE SU’L TERMODONTE (Pacific Opera Project at the Highland Ebell Club)

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by Tony Frankel on January 11, 2023

in Music,Theater-Los Angeles

AMERICAN PREMIERE OF VIVALDI’S
HERCULES IN THERMODON: A WINNER
PACIFIC OPERA PROJECT’S JOSH SHAW:
THE HERCULES OF OPERA PRODUCTIONS

The Four Seasons composer and violin virtuoso Antonio Vivaldi reckoned to have written 94 operas, yet only 49 have been identified by musicologists; of these, a mere 22 survive, most found in the Library of Turin. One of these baroque Italian operas, his sixteenth, is Ercole su’l Termodonte (Hercules in Thermodon), thought lost until this century. Antonio Salvi‘s libretto is based on the ninth labor of Hercules, who was to bring back the belt (or, as it is often translated, “girdle”) of Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons, a warlike race of women who lived on the shores of the Black Sea (think Wonder Woman).

With the belt replaced for a sword, it premiered in 1723 at Rome’s Teatro Capranica with an all-castrati cast (by papal command, no women in opera — what is it with men?). Vivaldi’s musical high spirits and rapid-fire coloratura in a battle of the sexes context can’t be called one of his greatest operas, but that’s no reason why it should have languished in near obscurity for over 250 years. In fact, the first presentation of Ercole since the 1700’s took place at the 2005-06 Italian Spoleto Festival.

The hero in this review is not Hercules but L.A.’s Pacific Opera Project director Josh Shaw, who has been surprising us with his neverending creativity and originality since 2011. First of all, his production of Ercole su’l Termodonte — which opened last weekend and plays until January 21, 2023 — is an American Premiere, and, I suppose as an homage to the newly discovered score, Shaw is taking a more serious tone with this delightful opera, as opposed to the silliness of POP’s only other baroque offering, La Calisto in 2014. POP has always been most serious about the musicality of their presentations, but the operas have been produced with modern flair — often comedic takes — that make the operas so much more accessible. This is straightforward light entertainment, and I loved it.

The seriousness here resides first in the reimagined Highland Park Ebell Club: The interior has been transformed into a melding of supper club and opera house, with floor seats in front of the stage surrounded by patrons on three sides (called “boxes”) sitting in higher tiers. The small black folding-chairs throughout the house demand a pillow, baroque brocade or otherwise, so bring it. At first, a few areas of higgledy-piggledy-looking carpentry made me pray that we wouldn’t have a Day of the Locust crashing set moment. But Shaw would never create an unsafe environment, it’s just budgetary constraints (amazing set construction by David Handler). But dammit if that doesn’t add more charm to the evening.

Shaw’s sets are classic 1720s: below the stage in period costume and powdered wigs sit a consort of period instrumentalists — oboe, flute, trumpet, theorbo, and strings tightly conducted by Kyle Naig from the harpsichord, which thankfully was not too loud. And when the lights hit a painted pastoral backdrop and three wings on each side of the stage, the dreaminess of it all actually garnered applause.

The other different take than other POP shows was a straightforward light entertainment without Shaw’s normally updated (read: funny) staging and supertitles. (POP’s next offering is a 1990s’ video game version of The Magic Flute – AKA Superflute at The El Portal in NoHo March 17-26.) While that makes the new titles at the most, quaint (and at the least, quaint), it certainly allowed me to concentrate on the voices delivering arias in a variety of colors, as the opera has both serious and comic elements, especially with Maggie Green‘s sexy costumes, which are the love children of ancient Rome and Frederick’s of Hollywood.

The man-hating Amazons are led by Antiope (Meagan Martin); her sisters Ippolita (brilliantly creamy and strong soprano Janet Todd) and Orizia (Audrey Yoder) are also powerful warriors; and Martesia (Veronique Filloux) is a flirtatious younger Amazon who really finds nothing wrong with men. Ercole (solid tenor Logan Webber) doesn’t seem so heroic: he arrives full of braggadaccio, doling out orders and advice, the latter to Martesia about love (again, Men! Didn’t Hercules just get done killing his kids?). His warriors Telamone (Manfred Anaya), Teseo and Alceste (Kyle Tingzon and Michael Skarke, both sexy, strong countertenors) are smitten with the Amazonian women (whose breasts, unlike the depictions in classic paintings, remain covered). Along the way there are many arias of vengeance, some of romantic longing, battle scenes featuring trumpets and drums, and a happy-ending double marriage approved by former killer Antiope and love expert Hercules.

My theatergoing companion thought the women fared better here, but I think Vivaldi and Salvi simply wrote, for the most part, better arias for the women. Although, who knows? The score was believed to have been lost, then 30 arias and 2 duets were discovered in several archives, and the rest of the opera was reconstructed by Alessandro Ciccolini. It it has been judiciously cut and Ciccolini has replaced several missing arias with pastiche borrowings and recomposed the lost recitatives. Most important is that Mr. Shaw found the score and delivered a swell night.

photos by Martha Benedict

Ercole su’l Termodonte
Pacific Opera Project
Highland Park Ebell Club, 131 S. Avenue 57 in Highland Park
ends on January 21, 2023
for tickets ($20, single to $320, box of 4), visit POP

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