Hercules and Opera at the Court of Louis XIV
The positive reception of Rossi’s and Caproli’s ballet-infused operas, not to mention the end of the Fronde, encouraged Mazarin to entice the much heralded Francesco Cavalli to Paris to set Francesco Buti’s libretto for Ercole amante.
The premiere was designed to be performed for the king’s marriage to the Spanish Infanta, Maria Theresa (Marie-Thérèse) of Austria, a marriage which would help Louis consolidate the Catholic territories of Bourbon France and Hapsburg Spain, and provide a venue for the most ambitious operatic production to date and one of the most magnificent ever conceived. Louis’ sumptuous wedding eliminated the budgetary constraints usually associated with the for-profit public opera houses of Venice and Buti’s imaginative libretto provided ample opportunities for Cavalli to expand his musical horizons.
Buti greatly expanded the story recounted in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, dramatized in Sophocles’ Trachiniae and Seneca’s Hercules Oetaeus and most recently by Jean de Rotrou (Hercule mourant, 1634, under the patronage of Richelieu). Buti also introduced the adversarial divinities of the Aeneid and other ancient and medieval plots and allegories, with Venus assisting Hercules in his amorous advances towards Iole and Juno intending to unite Hyllus, Hercules’ son by Deianeira, with Iole, whose father Hercules kills. After a number of intervening events, most noticeably an earthly cataclysm and vivid invocations of Neptune and Hades, Hercules is killed with a cloak soaked in the poisoned blood of the centaur Nessus but ultimately undergoes an apotheosis and marries the Olympian Hebe.
Emulating the most current Venetian fashion and the most elegant narrative models from Renaissance intermedi and ballets de cour, Buti incorporated many of the ancient characters associated with the mighty Theban while rendering the entire tale as a symbolic political allegory. Contemporary operatic style dictated that he create romance (Hyllus and Iole), expand the role of the Olympian gods (Juno, Venus, Neptune), utilize expensive stage machinery (with vistas of Hades, an earthquake that releases the ghost of Iole’s father from Hades, and Neptune rising from the waves to rescue the drowning Hyllus).
On the other hand, the political importance of the wedding required that the original story not be trivialized for a young monarch, especially one who might be associated with the hero. Hence, a morally superior Hercules must be faithful to his wife so he can achieve ultimate glorification and apotheosis, two goals of tremendous significance for the monarch whose armies were the envy of Europe and whose self-proclaimed right to be king was divine.
Provisional content for Hercules Performed