I have no idea how I feel about this, but here it is:
“Hercules vs. Vampires,” a newish opera by the Los Angeles-based film composer Patrick Morganelli which was performed by Los Angeles Opera on Thursday night, is strangely captivating. Accounting for one’s enjoyment of the work is difficult; it amounts to a new genre – call it “dub opera,” or maybe even “MST3K opera.” At any rate, enjoyment there was, for this listener as well as a clearly enamored audience.
Morganelli’s opera is not only based upon the 1961 Italian sword-and-sandal film originally called “Ercole al centro della terra” and released in this country as “Hercules in the Haunted World,” it plays simultaneously with a screening of it. The composer fashioned the libretto from the English dubbed version. The sound is turned off as the movie is shown and the dialogue is sung instead, with projected subtitles.
The movie itself, which stars Reg Park, a three-time Mr. Universe as Hercules, and Christopher Lee as the villain, is fairly impossible to take seriously, of course, but Morganelli – wisely – did. His score plays it straight and allows the laughter to come where it will. But part of the fun is just seeing Park, Lee and others open their mouths on screen and hearing operatic singing come pouring out.
Morganelli’s music is a delight. It is basically a film score with singing, drawing upon a kind of sparkling Impressionism for the scenes on Earth, with touches of Bernard Herrmann and John Williams here and there, and the avant-garde sounds of Ligeti and Penderecki for the monstrous goings on in Hades. He sets the dialogue to song fairly straightforwardly, mostly a syllable a note, but readily captures the emotional import. A nice touch: the Oracle sings in wild melisma.
He solved the problem of the monotony of back-and-forth dialogue, too. The opera is written in sections; we get a different piece of music for each scene basically, which grows and develops. Like Bava, Morganelli makes much out of little: In this revised version of the score first given at Opera Theater Oregon in 2010, the orchestra of just 26 musicians, none of them playing unusual instruments, produces a rich variety of color and is surprisingly powerful when necessary.
The performances of “Hercules vs. Vampires” are a part of L.A. Opera’s “Off Grand” initiative, which effectively creates an alternative company within the company. The singers were from the group’s Domingo-Colburn-Stein Young Artist Program and, deployed in a line at the bottom of the screen, distinguished themselves capably. They were Nicholas Brownlee, Brenton Ryan, Kihun Yoon (a suitably beefy-voiced Hercules), Summer Hassan, Vanessa Becerra, Frederick Ballentine, Rafael Moras, Craig Colclough and Lacey Jo Benter, many in multiple roles. Christopher Allen, an alumnus of the Young Artist Program, conducted the orchestra with sensitivity and cool incision. The orchestra was raised in the pit; we could see them, and hear them better than usual.