Antonio Vivaldi's opera ERCOLE SU'L TERMODONTE (Hercules in Thermodon) has received one of the finest performances on record. The three act opera with libretto by Antonio Salvi was first performed in 1723 in Rome where due to a special papal edict preventing women from appearing onstage in Rome, it premiered with castrati singing all the female roles. Vivaldi was both conductor and solo violinist. In this recreation of the work, rarely heard or seen (except in the 2006 very controversial Spoleto Festival performance captured on DVD with Zachary Stains as Hercules au natural), Fabio Bondi has reconstructed the work into a critical edition and also conducts the Europa Galante and performs the solo violin parts.
According to one synopsis, 'the story is based on the ninth of twelve legendary Labors of Hercules. To atone for killing his children in wrath, Hercules must perform twelve labors, the ninth of which is to travel to Thermodon and capture the sword of the Amazon Queen Antiope. (In other versions of the story, the quest was for her magical girdle.) The Amazons were a tribe of female warriors who put all their male children to death. Hercules, accompanied by the heroes Theseus, Telamon and Alceste, attacks the Amazons and captures Martesia, daughter of the queen. The Amazons then capture Theseus and, as soon as Queen Antiope swears to sacrifice him, Martesia falls in love with him. In the end, the goddess Diana decrees the marriage of Hippolyte with Theseus, prince of Athens, and of Martesia with Telamon, king of Ithaca.'
What makes this recording so brilliant (in addition to Fabio Bondi's considerable work) is the stellar cast of singers, a cast that would be impossible to match elsewhere. Some of the finest Baroque singers of our time here capture the beauty of this piece. The members of this production are as follows, here shown with the original voices assigned by Vivaldi to the roles:
Hercules (Ercole) tenor - Rolando Villazón (in very fine voice after his vocal cord surgery)
Antiope, Queen of the Amazons mezzo-soprano castrato (en travesti) here Vivica Genaux
Martesia, Antiope's daughter, soprano castrato (en travesti) here Diana Damrau
Hippolyte, Antiope's sister soprano castrato (en travesti) here Joyce DiDonato
Orizia, Antiope's second sister, soprano castrato (en travesti) here Patrizia Ciofi
Theseus, prince of Athens, contralto castrato here Romina Basso
Alceste, king of Sparta, soprano castrato here Philippe Jaroussky
Telamone, king of Ithaca, contralto castrato here Topi Lehtipuu
It is to Biondi's credit that he was able to assemble such a stellar cast. There is not a weak voice among them, and selecting brilliant excerpts for comment would have to include arias by each of these talented artists. Villazón is surprisingly fine as Hercules, and Joyce DiDonato is a standout. Phillippe Jaroussky is the only countertenor in the ensemble and that works very well for the overall cast. Topi Lehtipuu is superb and that is mentioned only because he is less well-known in roles such as this as the stellar members Ciofi, Damrau, Genaux and Basso. In all this is a very dramatic, very surprisingly new sound for Vivaldi, proving that he not only basked in his glories but moved into new arenas of composition in this work. The entire production is without flaw. Highly Recommended. Grady Harp