‘Hercules on the Thermodon’: Antonio Vivaldi’s baroque battle of the sexes
Photo by Martha Benedict

LOS ANGELES — How auspicious was this? COVID interrupted Pacific Opera Project (POP)’s plans to mount Ercole su’l Termodonte (“Hercules on the Thermodon”) three years ago, so it was postponed until now, the 300th anniversary of the original premiere in Rome on January 23, 1723.

POP’s U.S. premiere production (seen Jan. 6) has eight performances spread over the first three weekends of January 2023.

Composer Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) is known and beloved by millions (billions?) of music lovers around the world. He was immensely prolific, in the same mold as his contemporaries Bach, Telemann and Handel. His suite of The Four Seasons is his most popular composition, but the rest of his catalogue is enormous, if less well known. Most scholars, and certainly most classical music fans, have to admit that with all that volume of work, much of it is repetitive and stylistically undistinguished. Though clearly skilled and even brilliant, he is not considered much of an innovator in music, advancing the art.

Photo by Martha Benedict

The context in which his music—perhaps any music—is presented is all-important to its reception. Ercole is a case in point. It’s not exactly a feminist opera, but half of its cast of eight are nothing less than Amazons! Although POP, and its company director Josh Shaw (who also directed this production), don’t politicize or update Vivaldi’s work (or Antonio Salvi’s libretto), the implications on the eternal “battle of the sexes” are rife.

As one might surmise, given the place and period of this opera’s inception, the men, led by Hercules, win in the end, but only after a valiant fight by the tribe of Amazons famous for killing their male children. Yet that is only the beginning of the interest in gender identity that this opera prompts.

For the sake of getting everyone on board with the plot, here is how POP summarizes it:

“For Hercules’ Ninth Labor, King Euristeo asks him to sail down the Thermodon River to a village called Themyscira. He orders Hercules to capture the sword of Antiope, who is the daughter of Ares and the Queen of the Amazons. The Amazons are a tribe of warrior women who are stronger than men in combat and archery.

“Hercules boards his ship with his heroes Teseo, Telamon, and Alceste, and sails down the Thermodon River to find the Amazons. They arrive in Themyscira, where Teseo encounters Ippolita, Antiope’s sister, and the two secretly fall in love. Meanwhile, Martesia, Antiope’s daughter, also takes a love interest in Alceste, in secret. Hercules and his men attack the Amazons, capturing Martesia and holding her hostage.

“In revenge, with the aid of Orizia, the Amazons capture Teseo. Just when Queen Antiope swears to sacrifice him, Ippolita confesses her love for Teseo, and begs for Antiope to negotiate with Hercules.

“Seeing how the two couples have fallen deeply in love, Hercules makes peace with Antiope. She agrees, and graciously gives Hercules her sword, and consents to the two marriages. They declare peace.”

Readers will recognize certain repeat characters known in various adaptations of these stories: Teseo is Italian for Theseus, and Antiope is familiar to Wonder Woman fans. In other versions of the story it is Antiope’s belt or girdle, not her sword, that is the object of surrender. In archetypal terms, the girdle might represent the Amazons’ essential female nature to be conquered, whereas a sword represents woman’s armed strength and resistance which must be tamed. The Thermodon is an actual river in Turkey that opens into the Black Sea.

In POP’s staging a literal battle does take place. The Amazons have set the Greek ships on fire (which ironically might suggest they don’t want the soldiers to depart). The Amazons start off with deep suspicion about the opposite sex: “Man threatens even as he laughs and flatters. When he jokes he is fiercer still… And when he seduces, then he kills.” But really the battle has already been won: Men turn out to be capable of being something better than brutes, and women appreciate the quality of partners in marriage sharing their hearts—and also sharing the thrones of their new husbands!

Authors’ and composers’ proprietary rights were an uncertain thing in Vivaldi’s era. Artists appropriated freely from earlier texts, and happily inserted swatches of other musicians’ work into their own, or borrowed from their own past work. Known as the “red priest” (he was ordained and he had red hair), Vivaldi claimed to have composed as many as 94 operas, but many of them were pastiches and rearrangements. Ercole was supposedly his 16th opera, but only about 20 survive today in any measure of completeness, and all follow the precepts of opera seria, opera on serious themes characterized by long, expository recitatives followed by arias in some variety of ABA form, with the rare duet, and an obligatory final chorus. Most were set in some exotic locale, such as China, the Middle East, or summon ancient Roman or Greek mythology. One of Vivaldi’s operas was Montezuma, a fanciful takeoff on the Aztec emperor at the time of Cortez.

Handel also wrote a musical drama about Hercules (not this particular episode), and later in the 18th century, in 1793, Niccolò Piccinni wrote his own Ercole al Termodonte.

Photo by Martha Benedict

Switching costumes, altering voices

Some of the operas audiences most love involve what are called “pants roles,” i.e., women playing male parts, usually young men or teenage or younger boys, such as Oscar in The Masked Ball, Hansel in Hansel and Gretel, the Prince in Cinderella, and Octavian in Rosenkavalier. The tradition of men playing women’s roles goes back as far as the Greek and Roman theater at a time when it was considered unseemly for women to appear on stage; and even as late as Shakespeare the same objection applied. The sanction stemmed from royal or papal edict. In opera, castrati sang all the female roles, and the best of them were highly sought after and generously rewarded. In Ercole’s original cast of eight in 1723, for example, where Vivaldi himself conducted and was the violin soloist, five of them were named Giovanni, with one Giuseppe, a Giacinto and a Girolamo.

How is this possible? our astute readers will ask. There are four male roles and four female. Yes, but in fact, even the male roles were sung by castrati—all except one, the tenor Hercules.

What does it say about an era—and we’re talking about pre-French Revolution feudalism in Italy—in a Catholic country, in an opera written by a Catholic priest, that three out of four male roles are performed by men whose genitals have been docked so as to sing in ranges more generally associated with the female voice? For all the consistency of message that we thought we could assume about Western organized religion and proper roles for men and women, how can the custom of castration for the sake of a powerful voice be explained? Not to mention whether the victims of such procedure had any agency in this decision.

Were people in the 18th century more open to thinking about “trans” issues than we imagine?

Or perhaps we should frame the question differently. Men held practically unchallenged power over women and children, and could make such decisions for their offspring, their employees, the women in their families. It was the era of the “first-night rights,” the permission granted the lord to take the virginity of any servant or serf of his on the eve of her marriage. It was a time when a father could force a son or daughter into a (presumably celibate) religious order. When corporal punishment was widely practiced, when the poor were sent to debtors’ prison. When a woman needed a chaperone to leave the house.

Because theater is of its essence a place for disguise, masks, pretense, impersonation, it has always attracted those of an artistic bent who sought to slough off the poses ordained to them by social convention, and put on a different costume, even if only temporarily. And thus the cliché, but not entirely without foundation, of queer kids being drawn to the drama department. Some, in Vivaldi’s time, might well have opted for the career of a castrato, for it could be highly lucrative, and with parts of their genitalia gone, they could more freely mix, with both genders, in higher ranks of society.

Half a century or so ago, the male countertenor or contralto was a true rarity, but increasingly now important roles are being written for this voice type, sometimes more than one in a given opera. Operas of the 18th century, by Handel, Vivaldi and others, that originally called for castrato voices, that in the 20th century were performed by females, can now once again be sung by males with all their original equipment but with the specialized vocal training that allows them to flourish in this high register.

In the end, it’s about the singing

POP’s Ercole provides ample opportunity to experience Vivaldi’s opera in a production as close as possible to the conditions under which it was likely first seen. They have taken the 1912 Highland Park Ebell theater and transformed it into a baroque jewel box (well, sort of, the plywood panels and 2x4s are much in evidence, and the lighting design does employ electricity, not candles). The sets are charming and employ some of the technical features of 18th-century opera. Although POP is known for introducing jokes and humor into their productions, the delight here comes from the sheer pleasure of participating in this brave American premiere.

Shaw’s compact orchestra players are all fittingly clad in baroque outfits, which adds considerably to the experience. We hear strings, flute, oboe and trumpet, and a period instrument called a theorbo, a sort of mandolin with an elongated neck. Kyle Naig conducts from the harpsichord.

A Vivaldi opera can be a tedious slog. You don’t have to take that from me; just look at how seldom opera companies produce one. I have seen two of them up to now, the aforementioned Griselda and Montezuma, and came away thinking, “a noble exercise, but long, awful theater.”

Shaw and Naig have wisely pared Ercole’s score from its original 30 arias down to 20, and cut most of the recitatives. It now clocks in at a very reasonable two hours and 15 minutes, with one intermission. The arias are still all very much in the same form, there’s still little harmonizing of voices, and there’s only the concluding chorus. But you will hear some glorious baroque singing, with lovely ornamentation in the repeat passages. I would not at all be surprised to see another company pick up this work now that its stageworthiness has been established.

A contemporary portrait of Vivaldi.

And if music “has charms to soothe a savage breast” (William Congreve, 1697), perhaps the opera is meant to disarm the most polarized tendencies between men and women in a highly stratified society that gave women little power and, at least to some men, the opportunity to offer their special gifts in a non-masculine-sounding, female range. On some levels, it seems, 300 years ago, people were questioning what is truly masculine, and what is truly feminine. Maybe those aren’t even the right questions any more.

My only criticism, although my companion did not share this concern, is that the contrast in the supertitles between text and background was not sharp enough. I found them hard to read.

Participating in the cast are Logan Webber as Ercole, Janet Todd as Ippolita, Meagan Martin as Antiope, Michael Skarke as Alceste, Kyle Tingzon as Teseo, Manfred Anaya as Telemone, Veronique Filloux as Martesia, and Audrey Yoder as Orizia. Maggie Green is responsible for the costumes, and David Handler for the set.

For those interested, this recently rediscovered score has been twice committed to disc, one from the 2006 Spoleto Festival, and then in 2010 with international stars Joyce DiDonato and Rolando Villazón.

An illuminating preview interview with company director Josh Shaw can be viewed here.

Ercole su’l Termodonte plays through January 21 at the Highland Park Ebell Club, 131 S. Avenue 57, Los Angeles 90042. For tickets and other information, see here.


CONTRIBUTOR

Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon is the author of a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein, co-author of composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography, and the translator of a memoir by Brazilian author Hadasa Cytrynowicz. He has received numerous awards for his People's World writing from the International Labor Communications Association. His latest project is translating the nine books of fiction by Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese, the first volumes available from International Publishers NY.

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