When I first saw the title of this opera out of the corner of my eye, my brain read ‘Ercole sul Termodonte’ as ‘school on top of something that might have to do with baths.’ This did not seem like an extraordinarily winning concept for an opera. Fortunately ‘ercole’ is not the Italian word for school. It is the Italian word for Hercules. And while ‘terme’ is the Italian word for a spa or Roman-style public bath, Termodonte is something rather different. It is
a type of dinosaur prone to sticking its head into hot springs; the name means “thermal-toothed” the place where the Amazons live.
So, the opera is about Hercules and the Amazons – it’s the story where he has to get the magic belt of the Amazon queen. Hercules is Rolando Villazón, and, well, if you like your baroque by way of the 19th century, Villazón is your man. There’s nothing wrong with the singing; it’s just an issue of style, and I found that ultimately I didn’t mind very much. (In addition, the last page of the booklet? It’s a Rolex ad, with the Rolex worn by Mr. Villazón himself. Keep it classy, Virgin Records!)
But it does make him hard to miss or lose track of in the long list of singers in this opera. (The style, not the Rolex.) In fact, I would say that this is one of the charms of the recording. There are a lot of people in this. And they all sound different. The variety and contrast of sounds is really engaging – and it’s more than appropriate for the music. Apparently Vivaldi self-plagiarized some of his best work for this opera, and the effect is a lot of colorful, extremely entertaining music.
The highlights in this for me were, first of all, Vivica Genaux as the Amazon queen Antiope. Antiope’s “I will have vengeance!” aria in Act III, “scenderò, volerò, griderò,” was fantastic. But she’s exciting pretty much the whole way through. And she got some beautiful violin accompaniment for Act II’s “bel piacer ch’è la vendetta.” I also enjoyed mezzo Romina Basso as Theseus – she’s got one of those lowish mezzo voices that can hit really big deep notes. I like those. And of course Joyce DiDonato as Antiope’s sister (I think she’s her sister – there are a lot of sisters in this opera; as far as I was able to determine, one of them, sung by Patrizia Ciofi, turns out to have started the whole Hercules/Amazon war by burning someone’s ships. She set something on fire, anyway) but as I was saying, DiDonato as Antiope’s sister Hippolyta sings with all the expressiveness and drama that you’d expect. And oh, yeah, Philippe Jaroussky (Alceste). I admit that while I knew who he was, I had yet to sit down and listen carefully to something with him in it. I wish I had sooner. Damn.
The orchestral playing is pretty much what I expected from Fabio Biondi and Europa Galante. It’s bright, snappy, and exciting – they know just how to play the orchestral effects off the vocal parts, and the ensemble shines on its own too. Good stuff.