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Vivaldi: Ercole / Biondi, Villazon, Damrau, Lehtipuu, Genaux

Release Date: 02/15/2011 
Label:  Erato   Catalog #: 94545  
Composer:  Antonio Vivaldi
Performer:  Rolando VillazónDiana DamrauTopi LehtipuuVivica Genaux,   ... 
Conductor:  Fabio Biondi
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Europa Galante
Number of Discs: 2 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

VIVALDI Ercole sul Termodonte Fabio Biondi, cond; Rolando Villazón ( Ercole ); Vivica Genaux ( Antiope ); Joyce DiDonato ( Ippolita ); Patrizia Ciofi ( Orizia ); Diana Damrau ( Martesia ); Romina Basso ( Teseo ); Philippe Jaroussky Read more ( Alceste ); Topi Lehtipuu ( Telamone ); Europa Galante VIRGIN 94545 (2 CDs: 144:01 Text and Translation)

As I wrote in an earlier review about the composer’s La fida ninfa (Naïve 30410), “Vivaldi’s combination of ambition and compositional facility often led him to accept as many commissions as possible, producing repetitive, uninspired operatic works; but when he was challenged by excellent performers, a prominent event, or sharp competition … he took special efforts to produce his best.” Ercole was crafted for such an event: an invitation in 1723 to compose his first Roman opera. With the retirement of the city’s two leading operatic composers from the public stage, Scarlatti and Gasparini, it was a tailor-made opportunity for Vivaldi to create a new, major market for his stage works.

Under the circumstances, the Red Priest chose to give his best in a manner that was thoroughly appropriate to the Baroque, and oddly like a Broadway retro show of today. To Salvi’s clever libretto built around the ninth task of Hercules—the one where he must acquire the girdle of Hippolyte, Queen of the Amazons—Vivaldi for the most part attached (or reworked) the music from arias that were certifiable hits in his earlier operas. They showed off his expressive range, and provided a catalog of the orchestral and harmonic effects that set him apart from his competitors. Thus, Ercole’s exquisite serenade over pizzicato strings, “No, non dirai così”—the galant at its most sensuous—was borrowed with changes from his Orlando finto pazzo , while Teseo’s “Ti sento sì ti sento” could have been lifted by the composer from any of half a dozen of his works where it previously proved successful. In other words, it was a “greatest hits” calling-card that Vivaldi offered Rome. He could do this because he was an unknown quantity there, but the fresh material written for Ercole also avoids that formulaic writing the composer regularly employed to fill so many commissions. He knew this one was extremely important; he put forth his best effort. The opera was a huge success, leading to numerous further commissions, and the kind of adulation that pleased the composer still more than wealth.

Ercole itself made the rounds. Vivaldi, who was assiduous at self-promotion, saw to that. But it soon vanished from the stage, and its reconstruction has proven problematic. While Italian public theaters of the day frequently housed libretti in their libraries for future use, new music was almost constantly in demand. Older scores were discarded. The 1723 libretto of Ercole continues to exist, but its recitatives have vanished, and so have some of the musical numbers—though several of the latter ended up transformed for other operas, and stored in various collections. Fabio Biondi, who has put together the critical edition used on this recording, writes of finding most of its arias in Paris, Münster, and Turin manuscripts, but sometimes in fragmentary form. Here, Vivaldi’s re-use of so much material from many of his earlier works proved ironically helpful, since it was possible to use surviving portions of arias from Ercole to trace down their originals in other, extant operas, carefully editing as required. Several arias remain lost, but a few, out of necessity to the plot, required replacements, which were “recomposed” by raiding the same works Vivaldi had already used. Other arias that couldn’t be located, and were deemed unimportant to the work as a whole, were simply ignored.

The most sweeping musical change involved rewriting all those lost recitatives. In this, Biondi resorted to the stylistic guide of the composer’s earlier stage compositions. (Note that he’s hardly the first to find it necessary to do this in order to produce a new edition and recording. Alessandrini did as much for Vivaldi’s Armida al campo d’Egitto , as have others.)

The performances are almost uniformly top-notch, without variation when it comes to expertise in coloratura, agility, enunciation, and (in all but one case) theatrical intensity. Vivica Genaux’s aristocratic mezzo, with its diamond-like focus, makes for a perfect Antiope—whether calmly contemplating future vengeance in “Bel piacer ch’è la vendetta,” or hurling vocal thunderbolts in “Scenderò, volerò, griderò.” Joyce DiDonato’s sweet tone, especially in her upper register, scintillates; Romina Basso applies her unusually rich, colorful mezzo and exceptional phrasing to excellent result, especially in “Occhio, che il sol rimira.” Diana Damrau, a new name to me, furnishes the most feminine of characters in this opera with a silvery tone and graceful turns in “Se ben sente arder le piume.” Orizia requires essentially a mini-Genaux, all pride and fury, whereas Patrizia Ciofi’s softly gentle sound would seem miscast, though she has all the notes and suppleness one could require. Topi Lehtipuu aspirates slightly, but sings with distinction, while Philippe Jaroussky fits in with the predominantly mezzo cast so well as to be almost scary. The beauty of the central slow section of “Sento con qual diletto” owes as much to his voice and style as it does to Vivaldi’s lyrical genius.

As for casting Rolando Villazón in the title role: The recent crop of popular lyric tenors, with their astonishing agility, breath control, and bright metal, would seem as perfectly designed for the Baroque as they are for 19th-century bel canto . Villazón makes a superb Ercole, the warmth and purity of his line in such pieces as “No, non dirai così” a complement to the heroic sound, remarkable figurations, and divisions of “Non fia della vittoria.”

Biondi has drawn past criticism in some quarters for exaggerating tempos on both ends of the scale. Where Vivaldi’s operas are concerned, however, he’s decidedly less manic than the likes of Spinosi and Sardelli. There are no instances of singers gasping repeatedly for breath, or numerous slow arias being taken at an allegro pace, without a single point of unhurried reflection permitted in the entire score. Biondi also applies dynamics, accenting, and phrasing to positive effect on a regular basis. In other words, he treats his Baroque orchestra with the same kind of attention to subtleties that good conductors do to modern orchestras.

Good liner notes, full texts and translations, first-rate engineering. Of the eight Vivaldi operas I’ve reviewed, Ercole is the one I’d suggest as a work of first exposure. It has the most consistent level of inspired music—not surprisingly so, when you take into account its “greatest hits” compositional strategy, and the field of seasoned material the composer had to draw from. It also has the best all-around performances, both for vocals and theatrics, with conducting that is matched only by Savall in Farnace (Alia Vox 9822), and Dantone in Tito Manlio (Naïve 30413). Strongly recommended. In other words, get this.

FANFARE: Barry Brenesal


Ercole was the first opera that Vivaldi wrote for Rome and, though we know nothing about the circumstances of the commission, he was out to impress. In this work he created what the booklet notes refer to as “an operatic sampler”, a compendium of every kind of aria and operatic trick that he was capable of producing, an introduction for the Roman opera-going public to all that was great about his art. The story is a very liberal re-telling of the ninth labour of Hercules. Hercules and his hero companions set out for the river Thermodon (Termodonte) and the kingdom of the Amazons where, after a series of adventures in love and war, he succeeds in winning the girdle of Antiope, the Amazon queen. For all its contemporary popularity, however, the score was subsequently lost and Ercole vanished into obscurity for centuries until Fabio Biondi set about the task of reconstructing it.
In a long and fascinating booklet note Biondi explains his process in reconstructing the opera. The key was that we still have the complete published libretto and, more importantly, the opera’s immense popularity led to almost every aria being copied and re-published separately in collections that were sold all across musical Europe. Biondi’s archaeology led him principally to the libraries of Paris, Münster and Turin where he found copies and rearrangements of most of the material he needed and pieced it back together to re-make the score as best he could. The process isn’t perfect: all the recitatives are gone and Biondi had to re-write these himself in an imitation of Vivaldian style. There is also no material for the choruses - these were made up of borrowings and pastiches - and one or two arias are lost entirely. On the whole, though, you have to take your hat off to Biondi for succeeding in a task as seemingly Herculean as the action itself.
The opera itself makes great listening. Vivaldi writes every kind of aria and showcases it to display his abilities as a composer at their most refined. We are exposed to every emotion with the register cranked up to maximum: rage, despair, love, vengeance, heroism, cowardice, frustration, infatuation, and everything in between. It’s also of a well judged length so that the tension doesn’t flag and the drama proceeds at just the right pace in its current format.
All of Biondi’s efforts, however, would be worth little were it not for the fact that he assembles a wonderful cast of performers to give the opera new birth. Singers from both the Baroque and Romantic worlds give their all to the project and it is exhilarating to hear familiar voices in music that has probably not been heard for centuries: the length of time it took to complete the recording is testament to the hectic schedules of 21 st century operatic stars! Hercules himself is superstar tenor Rolando Villazon, though he is probably the least successful character due to his almost total lack of empathy with the style of the period. He certainly gives his all in the manner for which he is famous, but too often he pushes his voice to emotional breaking point and blusters dreadfully, most seriously at the accompagnato that begins Act 3. His opening aria is clearly too low for him, and he foghorns his way through Non fia della vittoria in a most unattractive manner. He can tone it down when he needs to, and he does so for his Act 2 aria on the nature of love, but he sticks out problematically among colleagues so distinguished for their refinement and sensitivity to period style. For all the attention he pays it he might as well be singing Alfredo!
He, however, is the only weak link: everywhere else you will find great riches. The women are all well contrasted so that there is never any danger of monotony. As Antiope, the Amazon queen, Vivica Genaux is extremely impressive. The masculine quality of her voice underlines her role as leader and her coloratura never detracts from her authoritative manner. She saves the best for last, her final aria displaying astonishing virtuosity in a breakneck torrent of vengeance and fury. As her war-like sister, Orizia, Patrizia Ciofi sounds austere, distinctively different to her colleagues. Her voice is smoky, pained at times, and she comes up with some hugely interesting ornamentations for the da capo section of her arias. Her interpretation also culminates in an incredible aria of defiance in Act 3. Joyce DiDonato as the third sister, Ippolita, is as wonderfully characterful as always. To her is given a wonderful pair of arias to begin Act 2: the first a love song accompanied by a gorgeous pair of duetting violins, the second a heroic aria of startling coloratura. She also acts most convincingly with the voice, giving it an entirely different colour for her final, almost oriental-sounding aria, showing her ability to reinvent the character as necessary.
Diana Damrau, as Antiope’s daughter Martesia, is appropriately girlish and fresh, winning in her innocence, with great coloratura in her opening aria, and she is at her most alluring in her Act 3 aria where she accepts Alceste’s love. Alceste himself is given to the heavenly voice of Philippe Jaroussky. He is a marvel among counter-tenors, producing sounds that are as beautiful as they are unearthly. He brings silky sensuousness to everything he sings, even his heroic aria at the end of Act I, and it is dream casting that a voice such as his is given so many arias about the nature of love. Topi Lehtipuu’s tenor is muscular and heroic, but in an entirely different manner to Villazon, lighter, more youthful and much more in keeping with the style of the piece. My greatest discovery, however, was Romina Basso, new to me. She produces absolutely gorgeous tone from a voice that is dark, silky, almost husky in places, coming very close to being a contralto. She sings with sensual allure in Theseus’s opening aria, reflecting on his love for Ippolita, then produces wonderful coloratura in her quicksilver aria when she realises Ippolita’s love is returned. She is quite wonderful and is a voice I will look out for again.
The anchor for the whole set is the always excellent playing of Europa Galante. By turns sprightly, energetic, languorous or euphoric, they are perfect for showcasing Vivaldi’s compendium of his art. Perhaps the greatest praise should go to Biondi himself who has not only brought this opera back from the dead but has had a hand in shaping its every contour so convincingly that we accept it as being the original text. His advice must surely have gone into the singers’ ornamentations which are sensitive, virtuosic and entirely in keeping with the spirit of the music.
Presentation of the set is in a slimline case with an excellent booklet containing text, translations, colour photographs and scholarly essays. Whether you buy this set to sample some magnificent singing or to get to know a once lost opera, you will find plenty to enjoy.
-- Simon Thompson, MusicWeb International
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Works on This Recording

Ercole sul Termodonte, RV 710 by Antonio Vivaldi
Performer:  Rolando Villazón (Tenor), Diana Damrau (Soprano), Topi Lehtipuu (Tenor),
Vivica Genaux (Mezzo Soprano), Philippe Jaroussky (Countertenor), Joyce DiDonato (Mezzo Soprano),
Patrizia Ciofi (Soprano), Romina Basso (Mezzo Soprano)
Conductor:  Fabio Biondi
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Europa Galante
Period: Baroque 
Written: by 1723; Rome, Italy 

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