And now for something completely different: An opera based on the 1964 Mario Bava “classic” Hercules In The Haunted World or Hercules with/at/in the Center Of The Earth, or just Sword and Sandal, if you saw it on Australian television.
This inspired bit of lunacy was playing at the Dorothy Chandler pavilion, and it was very nice, I must confess, to hear live music and singing—with no electronic amplification whatsoever!—once again. (I mean, apart from when I’m playing.) A lot of you younger people may not realize that truly “acoustic” music is a thing, as even stuff like MTV’s “Unplugged” are recorded and mixed and messed with in all sorts of ways.
It’s just not the same as being there with 27 instruments and 8 singers and everyone having to project in a 3,000 seat theater.
It was short, which was a good way to introduce The Boy to live opera. And Hercules is actually not a horrible movie at all. Bava knew how to compose shots and there’s some editing that’s tight enough to seem positively modern.
Like, pre-‘90s, if someone said “I’m going to see the Oracle”, there’d be this sequence where they left the room, hiked up the hill, walked in the temple, then saw the Oracle. In this movie, there are a couple of scenes where someone says “I’ll see about that!” and then, boom, they’re wherever they need to be. (Low budget? Sure! Still: modern!)
The effects are all practical, of course, and some of them come off as just goofy (particularly a cliff dive in Hades) but a lot of them are quite striking.
Now, the opera: Without a doubt, Patrick Morganelli’s score is marvellous. It’s very effective and it occurs to me that if I were going to try to score a movie these days, I’d probably start by scoring an old movie like this. It’s just wonderfully rich and evocative, and serves to give some depth to what might otherwise be a completely campy affair.
The singing? Well…the singing is…operatic. So…I dunno. For my ear, the vibrato on the male singers especially tends to be too wide for me to enjoy. It can be pretty severe on the female side as well, although the alto (Lacy Jo Benter, I believe) was just sublime.
Now, the whole concept—Hercules goes to Hell to retrieve an artifact that will allow his love to come out of the Christopher-Lee-induced-funk that she’s in, meets an assortment of evil spirits, titans and spectral fluids, and along the way his sidekick Lycos picks up a new girlfriend, who happens to be Hades’ daughter, who gets revenge by ravaging the land*, and then must defeat the Big Bad and his vampire minions—is suitably goofy for opera. (Opera is generally not great literature.)
I actually watched the movie after the fact (currently available on Amazon), sans singing, but with one of those ’60s/’70s era dubs that sounds sort of like one guy is doing all the voices. They trimmed about ten minutes from the 1:16 runtime, which created some, em, plot holes (but why be churlish? Opera is not about plot!). It particularly highlighted how effective a score—complete with spooky choral moanings at appropriate points—can be.
The weakness with the premise is that an opera’s greatness stems from its arias—the melodic, non-plot-advancing expository stuff—and there’s little room for such things in most movies. Maybe a James Bond movie where the villain lectures, or maybe one of those Atlas Shrugged flicks. The closest we get to that is Christopher Lee’s final reveal, and it’s not quite as marvellous as I wanted it to be.
Nonetheless, highly enjoyable, and enjoyed all ’round. And, if I may say, a brilliant way to get new audiences into the opera house.
(*ravaging not pictured)