Review: In a funky Baroque opera house, Pacific Opera Project puts an immersive spin on Vivaldi
It has never been easy to come to terms with prolific artists. The old saw is that Vivaldi wrote the same concerto 500 times. He didn’t. He could always surprise and delight, just like the recent exhibition of Picasso’s seldom-seen cut papers at the UCLA Hammer Museum revealed an artist who spent nearly every waking moment making something special.
But in a distracted world overwhelmed by an ever-accelerating amount of data — the latest alarming prediction out of the National Physical Laboratory in England is that the amount of digital information that the world is creating will reach a total of 125 zettabytes (the equivalent of every person in the world owning around 160 one-terabyte computer hard drives) — how do we deal with a composer born almost 350 years ago who wrote untold hundreds of concertos, nearly 50 operas and sizable number of other pieces? Who has the time, the attention span, the resources, the intellectual bandwidth anymore?
Pacific Opera Project does. It gave the U.S. premiere of Vivaldi’s “Ercole Su’l Termodonte” (Hercules on the River Thermodon) last weekend, with performances running through Jan. 21. The unlikely venue is the Highland Park Ebell Club, just off a stretch of Figueroa Street with restaurants, coffeehouses and bars popular with the young, as well as a hip resource for vinyl, yoga, tattoos and vintage clothes.
The Ebell was a women’s club, and its historic building dates from 1912.. It is that doughty and camp venue that POP sometimes uses for endearingly low-budget and often farcical opera productions, but with high musical standards. If you are lucky, you will discover winning young talent. Capacity is around 250, and the sense of operatic immediacy is gobsmacking.
For “Ercole,” POP has turned the Ebell into a funky Baroque opera house. The company installed rickety, unfinished “boxes” surrounding floor seating. All seats are folding chairs. Elegance is in your imagination.
The sets are painted backdrops, again in Baroque fashion. The costumes by Maggie Green are cutesy tunics. The effect is that of a ridiculous ’50s B-movie elevated into a trendy retro modern art exhibit. As you walk in, a chamber orchestra is tuning up in its makeshift pit, the musicians dressed in 18th century garb with powdered wigs. It brings a smile to your face. Just don’t trip on the do-it-yourself carpentry.
All Vivaldi operas are rarities. The arias are virtuoso show pieces, vividly descriptive (this is the composer of “The Four Seasons,” after all). They may lack the character depth of Handel’s great works for the stage, but singers get a kick out of them, and occasionally a great artist might use her pull for a Vivaldi production, as Marilyn Horne once did for “Orlando,” and leave behind an evening of operatic wow. A recording of “Ercole,” made in 2010 , features the likes of Joyce DiDonato and Diana Damrau offering endless delight.
These were operas meant as enjoyment for the moment, not contemplative history. Many are lost. Most have missing parts and require as much reconstruction on the part of musicologists and performers as the Ebell did in its temporary makeover. But that is part of the fun. Old music can only exist if made modern and every production becomes a unique project of problem solving.
The production by Josh Shaw, who founded POP a decade ago, has some of his trademark jokiness that turns into gripping theatricality in a surprising instant. It features eight emerging singers who are at points in their careers where they are snagging lead roles in small companies around the country or small parts in larger companies. Each is out to prove something. The quality of singing varies, but the best is notable, and the collective energy the cast produces electrifying. The singers have gone through a lot of work to learn a role they will almost certainly never sing again, and they are determined to make that matter.
They, moreover, put themselves on the line like no others. The intimacy is such that even with a proscenium stage, this is the epitome of immersive opera. The singers are completely exposed vocally, yet wondrously daring. On the next two Saturdays they will bravely sing matinee and evening performances of the two-hour-and-20-minute opera.
“Ercole” concerns one of Hercules’ dozen labors, this one requiring him to obtain the weapons from Antiope, the queen of the Amazons. These Amazons want nothing to do with men, going so far as to kill all male babies. The Greek army sees them as incomprehensible beings to be tamed or eliminated. But in the course of battle — wouldn’t you know it? — the male and female warriors start to find each other irresistibly fetching. A happy ending sees Ercole getting his weapons from Antiope and conducting a double wedding.
Added to the intrigue is that high voices reign. All but two of the singers, be they women or male countertenors, are sopranos or altos. Hercules (Ercole) is a tenor, and there is a minor role for baritone. In Vivaldi’s day, when castrati ruled the roost, the entire cast would have been male. What that also means in practice is that aria after aria is expected to dazzle with vocal fireworks, although Vivaldi found just enough room for pathos to keep the drama, a challenging complex of plot entanglements, flowing.
The meatiest roles are the man-phobic Antiope and her warrior sister, Ippolita, who secretly falls for Hercules’ heroic pal, Teseo (Theseus). Janet Todd, a soprano who is a member of Los Angeles Opera chorus, is multifaceted Ippolita, full of fire and passion. Meagan Martin brings warm strength to Antiope. In general, Vivaldi had a lot more interest in the bold Amazons than the one-track-mind macho Greek bros. But he did give Teseo a fabulously showy aria, and Kyle Tingzon, a countertenor, makes it a highlight.
Logan Webber (Ercole) and his Greek gang — Michael Skarke (Alceste), Manfred Anaya (Telemone) — parade with amusing flair. Véronique Filloux (Martesia, Antiope’s daughter) and Audrey Yoder (Orizia, Antiope’s volatile other sister) bring them to their senses.
Kyle Naig conducts with flair from the harpsichord. At Saturday night’s performance, the ensemble did not remain as strong by the end as it had been at the beginning, Baroque operas are long, and Vivaldi was an indefatigable composer who figured everyone else was as well, making his operas their own kind of 18th century sensory overload. The difference between then and now being, and marvelously realized POP, is that here overload becomes pleasure and not, in the age of zettabytes, distress.
Pacific Opera Project's "Ercole Su'l Termdonte"
Where: The Highland Park Ebell Club, 131 S. Ave 57, Los Angeles
When: 8 p.m. Thursday; 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Saturday; 8 p.m. Jan. 20; 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Jan. 21
Tickets: $20 (single balcony seat) to $320 (box of four seats)
Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes
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