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CD Feature/ Alan Curtis & John Pascoe: "Vivaldi - Ercole Su’l Termodonte"

img  Tobias

“Love is a battlefield”, Pat Benatar claimed in her worldwide hit in 1983. Approximately 250 years earlier, Antonio Vivaldi spread the same message through his opera “Ercole Su’l Termodonte”. The legend of Hercules leading his army to destroy the rebellious feminism of the Amazones is really the story of a gender war in which the sexes have reverted to different sides of the borderline, determined to egoistically defend their values. Despite its ancient roots, the red thread of the opera is in fact a highly contemporary one and touches upon the rift caused by machoism and the emancipation movement. The trio responsible for this production, made up of Alessandro Ciccolini (reconstruction), Alan Curtis (Conducting duties) and John Pascoe (Direction), did therefore not have to worry about dealing with an outdated issue. The real challenge was presenting it in a way which did the original manuscript justice without loosing sight of the needs of a present-day audience.

“Why?” you might ask. Vivaldi, after all, seems one of the few classical composers who needs no introduction or explanation in the 21st century. Ever since Nigel Kennedy recorded the “Four Seasons”, his music is as popular in concert halls as it is as a background to preparing pasta and while his face is yet to grace mugs or cereal packages, the name of the man is a synonym for something special – even though few will be able to pinpoint, what exactly that could be. To some degree, this may indeed be inherent to his work. “Ercole Su’l Termodonte” has all the right ingredients to make this an enjoyment for everyone, from the layman to the initiated, for those with a seasonal ticket, as well as those who visit an opera about once a decade: A mixture of tragedy and (especially in this case!) humour, moments of intimacy and triumphant tutti as well as a balance between the complex and the blunt.

John Pascoe has filled the stage with real Olive trees, which glow in a mysterious green under the light of the moon and with giant, decapitated stone phalli. These set the mood for the explicitely errotic undertone of the work. Of course, Pascoe is right in claiming that the root of the story consists of the morale that love wins in the end and that its force will always prevail over war. But he is just as much correct in pointing at the aggressive sexual connotations contained in it. The way in which the characters ensnare each other, using their seductive forces to the full is just as revealing as the depictation of Hercules as a wild, untamable animal that has killed his own children and now wears nothing but the skin of a lion he has ripped apart with his bare hands. It may therefore take a little while to get used to Zachary Stains running around on stage naked, with nothing but aforementioned fur coat on his back, but it is a logical conclusion from the vision at the heart of this production rather than a cheap shock effect or a clumsy stabb at modernism.

All of these fears eventually evaporate anyway, when listening to Pescoe and Curtis talk about how they approached “Ercole” in the short “Extras” section of the DVD and how they would sing these arias together, with their hardly stage-worthy voices, while thinking of the right designs. In their hands, “Ercole Su’l Termodonte” has maintained a playful character, a lighthearted nature despite all of its natural and inbuilt complications and entanglements.

To arrive there, they’ve had to sort out the entire material, though, and it is here that our simple and cliche-ridden view on Vivaldi gets challenged. A total of four hours of music of the opera has survived through the ages, waiting to be rediscovered and reconnected – as it lay scattered and partly disconnected. Many of its long recital passages slowed down the action and various side issues distracted from the main story line. It was only thanks to “judicious cuttings”(Curtis) and the addition of smaller details (Ciccolini, who for example arranged for the trumpet-highlighted entrance of Hercules) that the work achieved the fluency and poignancy of the version at hand. Of course, that means that the final decision of which aria to chose and which to ommit was essentially a subjective one. But the inner cohesion of this DVD backs up the arguments of everyone involved. Besides, just as much as love, taste is a battlefield – and the war waged on it can actually serve to increase our understanding and enjoyment of the music at hand.

By Tobias Fischer

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