The always ambitious Pacific Opera Project (POP) is presenting the American premiere of Antonio Vivaldi’s ERCOLE SU’L TERMONDONTE (Hercules on the Thermodon) along with an interactive theatrical history lesson.
The Highland Park Ebell Club has been transformed into a delightfully ramshackle mini-Baroque theater featuring several tiers of box seating. Even more impressive and historically relevant are the cleverly designed forced perspective scenic elements, including periaktoi to change the setting. Maggie Green’s costumes hearken back to Hercules in his sword and sandal films which feels like the perfect choice.
The opera, as it was originally performed, does not survive. But we do have what scholars believe are the all the arias and, when necessary, recitative in the style of the composer has been inserted. As pre-Mozart recitative was not inherently dramatic, this is no real loss.
The flimsy plot concerns Hercules’ visit to the land of the Amazons to complete his ninth labor by capturing the sword of Antiope, the Amazon Queen. If you’re a mythology buff and expect him to be after the girdle of Diana, currently worn by Hippolyta, just relax and enjoy this take on the tale. Theatre-lovers may also recognize this as a prequel to A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM where the wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta is central to the plot. Not to mention that Antiope, Hippolyta, and Theseus all end up belting out Rodgers and Hart tunes in their hit musical, BY JUPITER.
POP’s Artistic Director Josh Shaw directs and designs the production with clarity, precision, and a somewhat surprising air of seriousness. This is not to say that some of self-consciously poetic language in the supertitles doesn’t elicit titters, but unlike other POP productions, Shaw is not winking at the audience.This helps us find some drama in the repetitive action of the opera.
Also taken quite seriously are all the musical aspects of the production. The roles were intended for bravura performers, and Shaw has chosen a wonderfully talented cast who throw themselves into this challenging music with abandon. Despite being the titular character, Ercole (Hercules) is somewhat sidelined in a plot that seems more interested in pairing couples up than in battles and sacred girdles. As Ercole, Logan Webber’s solid and limber tenor is not the stentorian sound that might overpower the character’s limited stage time.
The quartet of lovers all take advantage of the fact that they are blessed with the most brilliant examples of Vivaldi’s music. As Teseo (Theseus), Kyle Tingzon’s supple and beautiful countertenor voice is exactly what this music requires. But Tingzon also brings a thrilling dramatic force to his singing, particularly in his victorious second-act aria which is the vocal highlight of the production. Janet Todd’s Ippolita (Hippolyta), Michael Skarke’s Alceste, and Veronique Filloux’s Martesia, all sing with power and assurance and each find many moments to dazzle. Like Ercole, Meagan Martin’s Antiope spends a good deal of time offstage, but she starts the opera with strength and impresses in her final rage aria.
Sitting at the harpsichord surrounded by his periwig-pated ensemble, Kyle Naig conducts with elegant care. Beyond the opportunity to experience such a rare opera in performance, POP’s ERCOLE is a production that should not be missed by any discerning music lovers. There is even a YouTube livestream on January 21st.
Highland Park Ebell Club January 6 – 21, 2023 www.pacificoperaproject.com