This new release is as good as it gets. It is the first recording of Vivaldi's opera `Ercole sul Termodonte', first staged in Rome in 1723 and reconstructed by maestro Fabio Biondi, the conductor on this CD. The details of the reconstruction are given by Biondi in the `Analytical note', pp. 22-27 in the booklet - the text every listener is advised to read. The reconstruction is based on a complete libretto and on a number of arias and a few duets and interludes from `Ercole' preserved in different variants. Biondi wrote all the recitatives for this recording and decided on the orchestration of the survived solos, duets and sinfonias. The survived arias are distributed unevenly: for instance, Ippolita has six arias, while all arias written for Orizia have been lost. In order to keep the balance Biondi has made patches for some of the lost solos and adjusted other Vivaldi's operatic arias to the text of Ercole's libretto. This step is probably justified since Vivaldi himself used to practice the same thing but one cannot be sure whether the gaps are filled with the same music as sounded in Rome in 1723. Biondi also omitted several arias - one Ippolita's aria, one Teseo's aria, one Alceste's aria and one Telamone's aria - where their preservation would slow down the action and lead to an uneven distribution of the material between characters. The solo arias included in Biondi's production are located this way:
Ercole (Villazon): CD 1: track 13; CD 2: tracks 13, 25, 39Reconstructed;
Orizia (Ciofi): CD 2: tracks 9Rec., 29Rec.; Lost arias: `A un cor generoso', `Torno al campo';
Ippolita (DiDonato): CD 1: tracks 22, 29, 33; CD 2: tracks 4, 31; (omitted - `Un certo non so che');
Teseo (Basso): CD 1: track 18; CD2: tracks 6, 21, 33; (omitted - `Qual dispersa tortorella');
Antiope (Genaux): CD 1: Tracks 4, 8, 31; CD 2: Tracks 37;
Martesia (Damrau): CD 1: Tracks 10, 24; CD 2, Tracks 17, 27;
Alceste (Jaroussky): CD1: Tracks 15, 26; CD 2: Tracks 15, (Omitted: -`Sol perche t'amo');
Telamone (Lehtipuu): CD 2: Track 11; Lost: `Se profasti il mia fede'; (Omitted -`Lascia di sospirar);
Since this is the first recording of `Ercole', I lack a comparison and can only judge the soloists on the basis of their vocal achievements here.
Rolando Villazon (Ercole) is very good in the title role. I am not sure that his intonation and timbre conform to all HIP canons but this is of probably of minor importance: since Hercules came to the Amazons' kingdom from a different world, Villazon as a classical tenor may be a welcome guest of the baroque opera. All Ercole's solos are bravura pieces in major tonalities. The best music however is in the last aria, `Coronatemi le chiome' (CD 2, track 39), reconstructed by Biondi from the fragments of `Tito Manlio': it is designed to demonstrate the tenor's range and the heroic strength of his character.
Patricia Ciofi (Orizia) gets only two solos which is a pity - her well-rounded high notes and a warm timbre are delightful. The best solo piece of her character is `Cadero, ma sopra il vinto' (CD 2, track 29), reconstructed by Biondi from the music of `Artabano'. This item is on the level of Ciofi's & Biondi's marvelous CD of Vivaldi's motets Vivaldi: Motets.
Joyce DiDonato (Ippolita) is singing the main female role. DiDonato's mellow mezzo and effortless vocalization suit perfectly to her character. The best Ippolita's aria is undoubtfully the last one - `Amato ben' (CD 2, track 31). Biondi in his liner note calls this aria one of Vivaldi's biggest operatic hits, and I agree with him.
Romina Basso (Teseo) is engaged in the major trouser role. Her voice is a low mezzo-soprano with secure but rather muffled low notes. She is very good throughout her role but I was not touched by her final aria `Ti sento, si ti sento', (CD 2, track 33) which is a response to Ippolita's `Amato ben'.
Vivica Genaux (Antiope) as the Amazons' queen has to sing lots of nervous and aggressive music in the vein of her `Pyrotechnics's CD with Biondi Pyrotechnics: Vivaldi Opera Arias. She copes well with this task but I wish that her high trill were executed as clearly as by Ciofi. Her final Prestissimo aria `Scendero, volero, gridero' (CD 2, 39) is an amazing achievement though. In the rare moments, where Antiope does not have to posit herself as a virago and to sing to a inhuman tempo, Genaux shows beautiful vocals, as in the aria `Bel piacher ch'e la vendetta' (CD 1, track 31).
Diana Damrau (Martesia) is cast in a technically less demanding ingénue role. Her final aria `Se ben sente' (CD 2, track 17) is probably the gem of her part.
Philippe Jaroussky (Alceste) gets a part originally written for young Carestini - a famous singer to whom Jaroussky has dedicated one of his solo CDs Philippe Jaroussky - Carestini (The Story of a Castrato). However, this male soprano part is static. Jaroussky is on his usual high level but his rendering of Alceste's last aria `Io sembro appunto' (CD 2, track 15) which Biondi claims is a big hit left me cold. I even found Alceste's previous aria `Sento con qual diletto' (CD 1, track 15) more interesting. Both mentioned arias have been repeatedly used by Vivaldi in his operas.
Topi Lehtipuu (Telamone) is cast as second tenor. Originally, his part included 3 arias but one of them got lost and another one was omitted by Biondi. The remaining item `Tender lacci' (CD 2, track 11) is pleasant but it is eclipsed by other solos.
Biondi's firm hand is felt both in sinfonias and interludias and in the instrumental supports of the arias. He also performs violin and viola d'amour solos. His orchestra, Europa Galante, responds well to its conductor.
I do not see any serious shortcomings in this production. Possibly except for one: every listener will establish himself/herself whether he/she wants to repeat Vivaldi's `Ercole' in its entirety or to pick up favourite arias from it.