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In Review > North America

Hercules vs. Vampires

LOS ANGELES
LA Opera
4/25/15

There was, according to composer Patrick Morganelli, a serious artistic purpose behind his writing an operatic score for the 1961 Italian sword and sandal epic, Hercules vs. Vampires, a revival of which took place as part of the LA Opera Off-Grand series. In a pre-performance talk Morganelli spoke fascinatingly about the challenges of writing a continuous orchestral score to an already completed movie and of fitting the vocal line to the spoken, though silenced dialogue of the characters. His motive for this unusual exercise seemed to be to give new life to a dated work from the past. It was a quixotic mission, perhaps, and one that in this instance did not fully succeed (seen Apr. 25).

Musically, the ingredients for a success were there. Morganelli’s score had an interesting, historicist appeal. Film music is in part a byproduct of German music drama, and the score abounded in pleasing references to atmospheric moments reminiscent of Wagner and Richard Strauss, not to mention Korngold and, more recently, Bernard Herrmann. It had committed advocates. Christopher Allen’s sensitive conducting of a reduced LA Opera Orchestra elicited a high degree of poetry and dramatic momentum from the score, while the singers, mostly members of the Domingo-Colburn-Stein Young Artist Program, sang with conviction and power. Kihun Yoon, who vocally shadowed Reg Park, the on-screen Hercules, has a voice booming and capacious enough to suggest the extremities of Hercules’ anger and strength, while the sweet-voiced Summer Hassan effectively vocalized the two most alluring sirens on the screen, Dianara, Hercules’ love interest, and the exacting Queen of the Hesperides. Nicholas Brownlee had the enjoyable task of giving voice to the villainous Lycos, played on screen by none other than Christopher Lee.

But the excellence of the musical performance undermined rather than enhanced the artistic effectiveness of the evening. Morganelli’s music tried to realize to the full the dramatic potential of the film’s story; the problem was the banality of the film itself. Whether its inadequacies are due to structural and technical deficiencies of the film or seemingly archaic performance styles from fifty years ago is, perhaps, beside the point, but the lyrical effusiveness and pile-driving momentum in the score only served to highlight the imperfections of the movie. When emotionally laden operatic singing served as the filter for the oddly passionless acting of the film’s principals and the gelid posturing of its supposedly seductive women, a low of artistic bathos was reached, and the only possible response from the audience was roars of laughter. Similarly, the wearisomely puerile nature of the special effects were, when accompanied by Morganelli’s music, that much more pedestrian and banal. Why, one had to ask oneself, if Morganelli wished to write an operatic score for a film, did he not choose for himself a better vehicle? As it is, the score operated as an ironic commentary on the film rather than as an articulation of its drama. The event was good for campy laughs, but even they started petering out halfway through the showing. Unless composers can select films that can meet the challenge and suggestiveness of a rich musical score, this operatic sub-genre has a severely limited future. spacer 

SIMON WILLIAMS

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