“Cigars, cigarettes? Sweets, flair?” If you heard these sing-song syllables from a beautiful cigarette girl ringing out over a noisy theater the last time you went out, you either last went to the movies in the 1950s, or attended the premier of the Opera Theater Oregon/Filmusik production of Mario Bava’s Hercules vs. Vampires this weekend. (Of course the cigars are bubblegum and the cigarettes chocolate or mint, but with all proceeds going to OTO, the ambience is what counts.)
This isn’t the first joining of forces between OTO, Portland’s homegrown alternative opera troupe, and Filmusik, a project that re-imagines the sonic world of classic cinema through brand new sound- and vocal tracks. It’s not the first collaboration, but to date it may be the most brilliant. Thanks to the combination of Los Angeles composer Patrick Morganelli’s inspired short opera composed specifically for this film, the sterling quality of the OTO singers and Erica Melton’s expert direction of the Filmusik orchestra, Hercules vs. Vampires (It. Ercole al Centro della Terra) was a high-caliber musical experience coupled with the guilty pleasure of watching a campy old movie. In short, it was exactly the type of experience that Filmusik seeks to impart and contintually does, in fresh new iterations time and again.
The story of the film is loosely based on Greco-Roman mythology, following the adventures of Hercules (the obscenely muscled 1958 Mr. Universe Reg Park) and Theseus as they journey through Hades to obtain the Stone of Forgetfulness to awaken Princess Dianara, Hercules’ comatose lover. Michael Miersma sang the role of Hercules in an heroic basso, and David Simmons’ lyric tenor was a nice counterpoint as Theseus. Katie Taylor, fearless captain of the OTO, sang the wailing, spectral, eerily beautiful voice of the oracle Medea, who sends the heroes on their quest. The libretto was in English with no titles of any kind so the diction had to be impeccable in order to properly advance the plot, and in large part the OTO singers succeeded in this regard. The lower voices were occasionally drowned out by the orchestra, but the vast majority of the singing was comprehensible and clearly understood.
Morganelli’s composition was extremely well done, threading a difficult needle in satisfying the demands of a cinematic score while simultaneously providing the underpinning of an operatic libretto. There were gorgeous, eerie snippets faintly reminiscent of Berg or Britten (especially during the recits) and the score itself was keenly in-tune with the story, so at times I expect the tension and drama were better-served by Morganelli’s haunting offering than the original score. There were recitatives, typically arioso in character, exactly where one would expect them in an opera, and the arias, sometimes in duet or trio, were fit in quite cleverly. This was no easy task since the visual aspect of the production was film, which was in no way originally intended to provide a backdrop that would meet the needs of an opera. At times the singers’ voices linked up eerily well with the mouth movements of the onscreen characters; at others the synchronization rivaled the cheapest kung-fu flick dubbing but the great part is that it all worked—each moment was as enjoyable as another, and like a good opera the real joy lay in the singing and music, with the visuals functioning more as window-dressing.
The libretto itself, adapted by Morganelli and Taylor from the film script, was suitably mythopoetic and campy. As Procrustes the giant foam-rubber rock monster (sung by Paul Sadilek) begins to stretch Theseus on the rack while singing “Longer still, I will make you longer still!” in the most ominous bass imaginable, who can help but laugh? Or Miersma’s invitation to his companion: “Come Theseus—chump!” Bobby Ray sang the role of Lyco, lord of the vampire, zombie-ish creatures of Hades’ pit. Played onscreen by infamous villain Christopher Lee (way too young and looking disturbingly like a sinsister Kevin Nealon), he may have had more climactic battles against Yoda and Gandalf in his later life, but getting crushed by Hercules’ boulders was surely a foreshadowing of his many dooms to come.
Filmusik and OTO, coupled with Patrick Morganelli, have come up with yet another original, exciting, and fresh re-visioning of a film none of us ever thought we would see in a theater again, here with this re-animation of the dusty old corpse of an Italian sword-and-sandals classic. The historic Hollywood Theatre felt (as always) like the perfect backdrop for what was at once both a hearkening back to the ancient days of live cinematic music and a look forward to the bright world of things to come. This production will run again on Sunday, May 16th, and Friday and Saturday, May 20th and 21st at Portland’s Hollywood Theatre.