He's there! Or at least his costumed look-alike is, in the role of Hyllo's Page, sung by countertenor Tim Mead. Hyllo, the meek son of Hercules and the sympathetic lover of this libretto, sung by tenor Jeremy Overden, is dressed as Baby Huey in blue ruffles. Hercules, sung vibrantly by basso Luca Pisaroni, climbs into a latex muscle suit in his first appearance, thereafter looking much like Arnold Schwarzenegger in a baroque fright wig. Then there's Licco, the cynical servant and plotter, sung with maximum camp by baritone Martin Miller and costumed in leathers that would draw looks on Castro Street SF. Let's not forget Mercury, garbed as a green Human Flash, or the corpse of King Eutyro with his army of ghouls! The women in the cast, sadly for them perhaps, don't have as much fun with costumes; Juno and Dejanira get to be positively glamorous, while Iole has to be content with a slightly shabby wedding dress.
Costuming is only the edge of the zany visuals in this lavish staging of Ercole Amante, as cluttered with sight gags as a page in the children's book Where's Waldo. If you are hoping for an "authentic" 17th C Baroque staging ... if you've ever griped earnestly about "Euro-Trash" productions... STOP! Don't bother to read this review and bother even consider buying this DVD. This production is "over the top" in every way except nudity. It's bizarre, imaginative, hilarious, and utterly out of keeping with any poignant emotions expressed in either the libretto or the music. I could consider that 'cognitive dissonance' a grave distraction, an aesthetic wrong-headedness, if I chose to. But Free Will exists, at least in this review, and I choose to be dazzled by the ludicrous antics and visuals as well as by the exquisite singing of all the cast, especially by soprano Anna Bonitatibus in the role of Juno.
Francesco Cavalli (born a humble Caletti in 1602) was Monteverdi's pupil and eventual successor at San Marco in Venice. He played some role in stimulating Monteverdi to return to opera composition in the 1630/40s, and it's thought that he in fact composed much of the third act of Monteverdi's Poppea. His reputation spread throughout Europe, as a operattist, until Cardinal Mazzarin, also an Italian by birth, invited him to compose an opera to celebrate the wedding of the young Louis XIV to the Spanish Infanta Marie-Therese. A new state-of-the-art theater, the Salle des Machines, was intended to house the production, and Cavalli wrote his opera to fit that stage. As it happened, the theater wasn't finished, Cavalli had to substitute an earlier composition, and Ercole Amante was delayed until 1662, when 7000 people attended the "opening". It was a dire failure. The acoustics were dismal, the stage machinery noisy, and the hall bitterly cold. Cavalli returned to venice in chagrin and disappointment. Fortunately he got over his snit and composed another six operas before his death in 1676.
Ercole Amante is both the story of Hercules's last amour and death, and an acclamation of the glory-to-be of the Sun King, Louis XIV. Sycophantic? You betcha! but how many composers were ever invited to composer an opera for the nuptials of the most imposing monarch in European history? In fact, Cavalli was perhaps the biggest name in music in the mid 17th C, and he was the indispensable link between the 'seconda prattica' monody of Monteverdi and Landi and the incipient development of French Baroque opera as it diverged from both Italian and German opera throughout the 17th and 18th Centuries. Cavalli's operas were "through composed" recitativo, sparked by occasional duets and ensemble ariosos, rather than the more familiar Handelian recitativo/da capo aria pattern that survived through Mozart and Rossini. But Cavalli had an 'assistant' during his Parisian enterprise, an ambitious young Italian transplant named Lully, and it was cavalli's influence of Lully that shaped French musical destiny. The ballet 'entrances' in Ercole Amante were, in fact, composed by Lully, and Lully was quick to assert that HIS music was what brought Cavalli some success.
Hercules in this opera is a nasty brute, a raging merciless, murderous egomaniac ready to slay his own son in order to get into bed with Iole, who is in love with Hyllo. There is a brutal cynicism concealed in the libretto of this opera, and an utter lack of "Christian" morality that comes as a surprise, given the severe piety that Louis XIV professed. In the end, despite his villainies, Hercules is 'assumed' into the pantheon of the Olympic Gods. Then, in the musical epilogue, Hercules is transformed before our eyes into the Sun King himself, announcing a reign of universal peace and prosperity. One has to wonder how such a libretto was comprehended at the time of its composition. Was it then as inherently double-sided as it is in this production, a strange melange of cynical humor and homage to grandeur?