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Heroic Obsession: Cavalli's 'Hercules In Love'

Here's the story: A well-known married man has a torrid affair with his son's fiancee. All the while, he stays married and she continues to plan her own wedding — but they keep meeting for increasingly obsessive trysts. Of course, this dangerous triangle can't last forever, and it ends badly for all concerned.

Recognize that little synopsis? If you thought of Josephine Hart's sensational bestseller Damage or Louis Malle's film version of the book with Jeremy Irons and Juliette Binoche, score two points. But if you also remembered a 340-year-old opera by Francesco Cavalli, called Hercules in Love, go to the head of the class.

Cavalli was born in 1602, not long after the earliest operas were written. By the time he died in 1676, the brand-new entertainment called opera had taken Europe by storm, and Cavalli had become one of its most famous composers. Cavalli spent much of his career in Venice, where many of his operas were written for the festival season, when people tended to throw caution — and scruples — to the wind. Maybe that's why many of his dramas have decidedly amorous, and at times downright kinky, plotlines.

Hercules in Love — or Ercole Amante — was composed for a decidedly different occasion. It was commissioned for a 1662 performance in Paris, to celebrate the wedding of King Louis XIV and Princess Maria Theresa of Spain.

Fittingly, the opera begins with a theatrical bow to the royal couple and ends with the depiction of a happily married god and goddess — another tribute to Louis, the "French Hercules," and his new bride. In between, the drama portrays some markedly less savory relationships, including the one between Hercules and Iole, his future daughter-in-law.

Over the centuries, opera has become known and loved for combining a whole raft of artistic ingredients in a genre that, at its best, packs a wide range of dramatic and emotional experiences into a single evening's entertainment. The works of Cavalli prove that opera had that potential right from the very start.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Hercules in Love in a production from the Netherlands Opera in Amsterdam. It features bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni as Hercules, tenor Jeremy Ovenden as his son Hyllos, and soprano Veronica Cangemi as Iole, the young woman caught between them.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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