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Anthony Pryer
BBC Music Magazine, February 2012

Anna Bonitatibus as Juno and Anna Maria Panzarella as Deianira, through their well-centred voices, their sensitivity to underlying harmonies and their stage presence, bypass the pantomimic surface and tap into the depths of this music.

Johannette Zomer (as the Moon goddess Cynthia) and Marlin Miller (as Deianira’s servant Licco) are also outstanding.

…This is an enterprising, entertaining and enlightening offering from Amsterdam. © 2012 BBC Music Magazine Read complete review

Amie Ronald-Morgan
Scene Magazine, April 2011

In 1659, Italian composer Francesco Cavalli was commissioned to write an opera to celebrate the wedding of the Sun King Louis XIV. It was to be a grandiose, lavish affair with a new state-of-the-art theatre constructed expressly for the event. Cavalli and his librettist, Francesco Buti, came up with an intriguing premise for the production: they paralleled the marriage between the young French king and his bride, Maria Theresa of Spain, to the story of Hercules and the goddess Hebe. The complex plot is taken from Sophocles’ The Trachiniae and Ovid’s Metamorphoses. At the time, Ercole Amante—or, Hercules in Love—was the most ambitious show ever staged in Europe. Yet this production by Nederlandse Opera, filmed in January 2009, is a laudable effort that could easily rival the original run in terms of spectacle. Concerto Koln and the Chorus of De Nederlandse Opera, under the baton of Ivor Bolton, realize the excitement and drama of the Baroque score. Luca Pisaroni is charismatic as Ercole, our muscled hero who goes about trying to obtain the object of his desires, Iole (played with sensitivity by Veronica Cangemi). Ercole is determined to have Iole despite the fact that she despises him, and that he is already married. Various deities and humans both living and dead are summoned to assist both pursuant and pursued. There are no weak links in this cast. However, the true star here is costume designer Constance Hoffman. Ercole’s WWF wrestler/He-Man action figure suit and the incredible costumes of Iole’s dead father and his army of ghouls are reason enough to give this DVD a spin.

Gerald Fenech
Classical Net, December 2010

Francesco Cavalli (1602–1676) wrote this opera for the wedding of Louis XIV to Maria Theresa of Spain in 1660. But the performance had to be delayed as the theatre was not completed in time, and when it was eventually presented, the piece was heavily undermined by the talkative French audience and the Lully clique.

Notwithstanding all this “travail”, the opera was considered the greatest extravaganza of its day, although the story is hardly fitting for a wedding feast. Ercole is constantly striving to banish his wife Deianira and kill his son Hyllo so that he can marry his sister-in-law Jole. Juno, the goddess of marriage intervenes, and husband and wife are finally reunited, although at the end it is a case of too little too late. Luca Pisaroni is commandingly vigorous, especially in his man-made plastic muscles, and his performance is wholly assured, but it is the female singers Anna Maria Panzarella and Anna Bonitatibus that steal all the thunder. Indeed, their renditions are constantly sensitive to the harmonic content of the music, and the many “embellishment” passages are handled with versatility and imagination.

An expert in this kind of repertoire, Ivor Bolton marshalls his forces with aplomb, and although his conducting is sympathetic to the singers, he keeps things moving along a brisk pace. The production is engaging on all fronts; stage, scenery, choreography, singing, dancing, acting and costumes in particular all contribute magnificently to this opulent venture which I recommend wholeheartedly, particularly to baroque aficionados. Sound and vision are in the level of excellence we have come to expect nowadays.

Donald Feldman
American Record Guide, November 2010

All of the singing and acting is first rate, especially Hercules, Deianira, and Juno. Concerto Koln demonstrates their impeccable credentials, particularly on the dance numbers with Blu-Ray surround coding. The extras package is also of considerable value. I enjoy all of this opera extravaganza, the historical components, the musical arts, and the technology.

To read the complete review, please visit American Record Guide online.

David L. Kirk
Fanfare, July 2010

Francesco Cavalli lives pretty much in the shadow of his teacher, Monteverdi, whose three operas are frequently performed. Not so with most of Cavalli’s extant works. When you watch the Netherlands Opera production of Ercole amante it becomes clear why performances of this very large work are few and far between. It is a long opera that requires a large cast of singers and dancers. The Netherlands Opera production is truly a labor of love and daring venture.

The basic plot is simple: Hercules wants to bed his son’s girlfriend. His wife, their son, and the girlfriend are not pleased by this. For three hours an assortment of deities and the girlfriend’s deceased father are outraged and conspire against Hercules. Only a few of these ancillary characters support Hercules in his amorous endeavor.

Ercole amante was written to celebrate the marriage of King Louis XIV of France to Marie-Thérèse of Spain. The opera was intended to be a lavish court entertainment; a new theater was built for the occasion. Unfortunately the theater was not completed on time, so the premiere was delayed a year and Cavalli’s opera Xerse was performed instead. The French composer Lully composed dances that were inserted into both of these Cavalli operas. King Louis danced in the opera to the great delight of the audience (did they have a choice?). It is unknown if Louis was aware that the opera was about the abuse of power and that Hercules was a thinly disguised depiction of the King.

The Netherlands Ercole amante is a big-budget production. It employs a large cast, magnificent costuming that is colorful and often whimsical, elaborate scenic effects, and some ingenious motorized props. The staging is very imaginative and cleverly gives the feeling of Baroque opera even when modern elements are incongruously added to the mix. I wasn’t quite as smitten with the scenery. The stage appears to be quite large, a huge expanse to fill. A few of the set pieces are brilliantly colorful with large bold patterns like wallpaper patterns blown up to gigantic proportions. On video they often overwhelm and detract from the performers. This perhaps was caused by the lighting, which I find harsh and too white. Huge shadows are cast on the scenery and occasionally over the performers. This might have been effective in the theater, but with the tight focus of home video it is distracting and sometimes annoying.

Don’t let these quibbles dissuade you from watching this video. The performance is three hours 18 minutes long (plus five minutes of curtain calls) and is never boring. David Aldin’s creative direction and the talented cast bring this very old opera to life with vivid characterizations and ingenious business. There is not a weak or second-rate voice in the cast; everyone (chorus included) is consistently engaged in the drama. A few performers play multiple roles and create individual characterizations for each. Luca Pisaroni is outstanding as King Louis/Hercules. Pisaroni is a slender man who transforms himself into a muscle-bound Hercules by donning a plastic costume piece by piece. Perhaps aided by the limitations of the costume, he struts and swaggers as a bully, but is strangely likable.

Bonus material is available on both discs. On disc 1 is a synopsis of the plot and “cast gallery.” The synopsis runs for 10 minutes; a voice-over narrator tells the story while pictures from the production are shown. It is well worth your time to watch this before watching the opera.

There are three bonus features on the second disc. Singers Johannette Zomer, who plays three comprimario roles, and bass Luca Pisaroni are the subject of bio-pics that run about 10 minutes each. Much longer, and perhaps more interesting, is the 30-minute feature The Making of Ercole amante.

The opera spans both discs: acts I through III on disc 1, acts IV and V on the second. The picture is 16:9 widescreen. There are two sound formats: LPCM stereo and digital surround. Subtitles are available in English, French, German, Spanish, Italian, and Dutch. The subtitles (at least in English) alternate between the top and bottom of the screen. The lack of punctuation and splitting sentences into phrases occasionally makes making sense of what is being sung tricky.

If you like Baroque opera, or are looking for an introduction to Cavalli’s under-appreciated works, or just want to see a classy and imaginative opera production, this Netherlands Ercole amante is recommended.

Parterre Box, March 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.

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